Coming into this fall, Jim Smirk knew that he needed some young runners to come through in order for his Princeton High girls’ cross country team to maintain its winning tradition.
“We graduated the majority of our leaders and the two top runners in Elyssa [Gensib] and Jenna [Cody],” said PHS head coach Smirk.
“We have been figuring out how this team is going to be successful; everyone had to find a way to do it.”
With such young runners as sophomore Julie Bond and Mary Sutton together with freshman Lou Miahle stepping up, PHS has been enjoying plenty of success this season.
The Little Tigers took third in the Varsity A race at the Fall Classic on October 13 at Thompson Park, building on fourth place finish at the Shore Coaches Invitational, and taking third in the Passaic Coaches Invitational.
Sophomore Bond has emerged as a frontrunner for the Little Tigers taking 14th at the Fall Classic and 10th at the Passaic meet.
“Julie has been great,” said Smirk, noting that his JV team produced a great performance at the Fall Classic in winning its division with seven runners in the top 14.
“She is still figuring out the consistency piece but when the moment has been there, she has seized it. She is not just running better times; she is better in all facets. She is approaching each practice with focus, she is taking care of academic stuff, she is getting her rest. Last year, she fell in behind the top two but now she finds herself in the limelight.”
Bond’s classmate, Sutton, is also showing a special focus. “Day in, day out, Mary grinds it out,” said Smirk of Sutton who took 29th at the Fall Classic. “She is going to be good at it and she is going to keep at it. She is the consummate worker.”
The Little Tigers have been getting some superb work from precocious freshman Lou Mialhe.
“Lou is a fantastic athlete, she could have hopped into any sport and been a starter,” said Smirk of Mialhe, who came in 26th at the Fall Classic.
“It is a testament to the quality of our program and the culture we have built over the years, that she joined us. She has seen that the girls have done some good things over the years. She started out raw. She is a neophyte but she is making moves in races and the veterans are saying, hey that was a good idea. She is getting them to take more risks.”
While the young runners have made key contributions, Smirk knows that his team wouldn’t be on a winning track without several star veterans, starting with senior Amelia Whaley.
“We call her the voice of truth; she doesn’t say much but when she does, everyone listens,” said Smirk of Whaley, the team’s top finisher at the Fall Classic as she placed 13th.
“She is an honest racer; she gives you what she has got. She gets stronger, the deeper she goes into the season. She learns lessons as she goes along.”
Junior Belinda Liu has learned some valuable lessons in leadership as she has learned to contribute even though injury has kept her from being at the front of the pack.
“Belinda is one of our captains along with Amelia and Helen Eisenach,” said Smirk.
“She has been dealing with a lower leg injury and to her credit, she said to me if I am not at 1-2-3, how can I help 5-6-7-8. She has really stepped up; she has been very vocal. She is helping us know what it takes to be great. She is good at motivating the people around her.”
Eisenach has displayed great discipline as she has fought through injury.
“Helen transformed herself,” added Smirk. “She has hip flexor problems from squatting so much from playing catcher in softball. She went to the weight room everyday before softball and did hip flexor exercises. That shows a lot of commitment with the season six months out. She took care of fundamentals.”
With the Mercer County Championships coming up this Friday at Washington Crossing State Park, Smirk is hoping that the team’s collective commitment will lead to a good performance.
“If we do what we have done at dual meets, it should be good,” said Smirk.
“It will be interesting to see what we can do. I am still figuring out who our top seven are going to be. It is an exciting opportunity.”
Smirk is excited by how his runners have worked together even as they have competed for spots in the lineup.
“The kids have not been worrying about themselves,” asserted Smirk. “It has been how do we get this group to do things to the best of its ability. Sometimes that means you step to the sideline to help the team. It is exciting to see a group of high school kids take that approach.”