November 23, 2016

Relishing Its Dark Horse Role at MOC, PHS Boys’ Cross Country Runs to Title


AMAZING RACE: Alex Roth, left, leads the way as the Princeton High boys’ cross country team takes off in a race earlier this fall. Last Saturday at the NJSIAA Cross Country Meet of Champions (MOC) in Holmdel Park, senior Roth took third individually to help PHS win the team title. It was the first-ever MOC team title for the Little Tigers and just the second ever for a Mercer County school (WW/P-N boys in 2008). (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Coming into the NJSIAA Meet of Champions (MOC) last Saturday at Holmdel Park, the Princeton High boys’ cross country team appeared to be a dark horse for the title.

With most of the attention being focused on five-time champion Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) and top contender Colts Neck, PHS was flying a bit under the radar even though it was the Group 4 champion.

But the Little Tigers were ready to spring a surprise on the high-powered field.

“We have prepared for this and we were hoping to sneak away with the title,” said PHS senior star Alex Roth.

“We were definitely hoping that maybe we can catch CBA and Colts Neck by surprise. We definitely felt that we were capable of doing it, it just takes everything going right.”

Having made the MOC last year gave PHS a better idea of what it takes to be at the front of the pack in the prestigious competition.

“It was definitely good experience running in MOC last year, knowing that you are competing with a lot of very fast guys,” said Roth.

“You have to make sure that you don’t get too distracted by what other teams or other individuals are doing so you have to have that right and have the mindset going in that you are just going to take care of what you need to take care of.”

PHS ended up taking care of business last Saturday, taking first with 104 points, edging Colts Neck (106 points) and CBA (109 points). Roth led the way for PHS, taking third individually with a time of 15:54 over the 5,000-meter course. Junior Will Hare took 10th with sophomore Acasio Pinhiero coming in 24th, junior Alex Ackerman finishing 24th, and senior Cy Watsky placing 86th.

It was the first-ever MOC team title for the Little Tigers and just the second ever for a Mercer County school (WW/P-N boys in 2008).

In Roth’s view, the deep bond among the PHS runners paved the way for the championship.

“I think just the fact that we have been going through all of this, all of the training, all of the races, all of these moments, all year for so many years now that we have grown so close together,” said Roth.

“We have that tight bond and a huge part of the team’s success is that we are doing it together and that we are out there for each other. We work for each other.”

PHS head coach Jim Smirk sensed his runners were primed for a run at the MOC crown.

“Certainly training wise and how the whole season shaped up, their patience and consistency in training and their focus their entire season, I did think we had the ability to have a good strong race,” said Smirk.

It took a total team effort for the Little Tigers to earn the victory. “It was really a resilient performance,” said Smirk.

“Will Hare, Acasio Pinheiro, and Alex Ackerman found a guy on a team that we needed to be competitive with and ended up on the right side of that. We knew who we were racing against, we knew that it was going to take more than just finding that one guy. Everybody had to contribute.”

Knowing that it came into the race as an underdog fueled the Little Tigers.

“It is a testament to the strength of this team, a lot of people were — it is Princeton, they have kind of been around but …,” said Smirk.

“I think more than anything we showed everybody that if you sleep on us, we will get you and that is OK. That is part of what we pride ourselves on. We are going to give a constantly strong performance every time we go out. We know we can’t control the race so we control the things that we can, which is our performance, and challenge teams to respond and that strategy seems to work.”

The PHS squad also prides itself on working together as one. “It is real easy in high school to be a little bit afraid of making strong bonds; people kind of step away from that a little bit but these guys have really turned that on its head and said this is important to us,” said Smirk, whose team will be competing in another important race as it takes part in the Nike Cross Nationals Northeast Regional at Wappingers’ Falls, N.Y. this Saturday with the top two teams automatically qualifying for the nationals and the other spots to be filled by wild card selections.

“If it is important to us, we need to be honest with each other and care about each other and trust in each other. We have certainly raced that way. I think you saw that at groups and sectionals where Alex set out a pace that really changed how the field could handle things and our guys never flinched. They knew exactly what he was capable of doing and they trusted him and he, in turn, trusted them.”

Roth, for his part, is enjoying the strong finish to his high school career.

“It is kind of cool to have this success both on an individual level and on a team level because it is the best it has really been in a while,” said Roth, who has committed to attend the University of Pennsylvania and will be running there. “It is really, really cool to be able to say that this is my senior year.”