While Hurricane Sandy has disrupted life on many levels in the tri-state area over the last two weeks, the Princeton High boys’ cross country team was able to keep on track.
With the Central Jersey Group III sectional meet having been moved back a week to November 10, the PHS runners were determined not to lose their edge.
“The kids contacted me and asked what they should do on the their own,” said PHS head coach John Woodside, whose team placed second at the Mercer County Championships on October 26 in its last action before the superstorm hit the area.
“Most of them worked out on their own on Wednesday. We were able to have practice on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. They kept their focus. They said this meet is going to happen and they were going to be prepared.”
That preparation paid dividends last Saturday as PHS placed first in the sectional meet, giving the program its second straight Central Jersey crown.
“I was very proud of what they did,” said Woodside, reflecting on the win, which saw the Little Tigers come in with 61 points with runner-up Hopewell Valley at 71 and Middletown South taking third with 75.
“It was special to stand with them and hold the trophy together. They knew what it takes to win and they did the work.”
In Woodside’s view, it was togetherness that helped pave the way to the title repeat.
“At the beginning of the season, we always tell them that this is a team sport,” said Woodside.
“If you have three or four good guys, it is really good to have three or four more. If one guy has a bad day, someone else can step up. They are all in it together; they understand the team concept.”
Senior star Luke Bozich has emerged as a key for PHS, battling through injury to set the pace for the squad. In the sectional meet, Bozich placed fifth individually, covering the 3.1 mile course at Thompson Park in 16:17. Sophomore Jacob Rist was the next finisher for the Little Tigers, taking 12th with junior Sage Healy placing 14th, junior Conor Donahue coming in 16th, and junior Kevin Vahdat finishing 20th.
“I knew all along what we had with Luke,” said Woodside. “He took a couple of spills early in the season. He missed some time and some races. If he could stay on his feet, I knew he would do well. I have respect for the way he works and respect for his leadership. A team needs a guy to set a tone and he does that for us. He runs hard and he is fearless. The guys are supporting him and he supports them. They feed off of each other.”
Woodside was proud of the team’s supporting cast. “Rist had his breakout race at the counties; that was the first race where he was in that spot,” said Woodside.
“Conor did really well. We put Sage in and he does well. He ran in the JV race at the counties. He came out today and ran a great race for us.”
Junior Vahdat may have run the most courageous race for the Little Tigers last Saturday.
“Vahdat was really sick last weekend and early this week,” said Woodside. “He came back to practice on Wednesday and did the workout on Thursday. He came in Friday and he was drained so we sent him home. I was hoping to get something from him and he battled hard to come in fifth for us.”
PHS is going to be in for a battle this weekend at the run in the state Group III meet at Holmdel on November 17.
“That is a different animal; there are a lot of good teams,” said Woodside.
“We are looking forward to groups. We could run a great race and not be in the top three. The benchmark is whether they work hard and run their best.
In August, when we were talking about the season, I think the group meet was the target. They want to have a great race at that meet. We are going to fight hard and do the work next week.”
No matter what happens at the group meet, the Little Tiger program has certainly made great strides.
“I like the fact that we have put PHS back on the map in terms of high level success and the number of kids participating,” said Woodside, who is in his 12th season at the helm of the program.
“It is nice to see that PHS is a power again in cross country. We have developed a reputation for success. The program has a great history but there have been valleys. Things weren’t good in the 1990s. When I started kids didn’t know what cross country was. We are establishing a great program; the kids are racing well. I am excited to see how they do.”