June 5, 2019

Producing Some Breakthrough Performances, PHS Boys’ Track Falls 1 Point Short of Group Title

TIGHT COMPETITION: Princeton High boys’ track stars Jackson McCarthy, right, and Tucker Zullo compete in Central Jersey Group 4 sectional outdoor track meet at Howell High in late May. Last weekend, senior McCarthy took fifth in the 800 meters and 10th in the 1,600 at the state Group 4 meet as PHS missed winning the team title by one point with host Franklin scoring 44 and the Tigers getting 43. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Jackson McCarthy and Jack Phelan came away from the Group 4 boys’ state championship meet last Saturday with new personal records.

The performances by the Princeton High seniors nearly delivered a second straight state title for the program but the Tigers were edged by champion Franklin, 44-43, which had sprinter Mario Heslop accounting for 30 individual points and sharing six more in the final relay.

“Obviously a 1-point loss is always going to hurt pretty bad,” said McCarthy. 

“We’re trying to defend our state title. We came with four or five fewer scorers than we had last year. We’re a lot thinner this year. We dealt with a crazy amount of injuries this year. We’re a group of fighters. When someone does something incredible, it inspires you. To come one-point short to a team that has one man that scored 30-some hurts. It’s hard to beat a team with him on it. We did everything we could. That’s all we wanted to do, say we did everything we could to walk away with that title.”

PHS came close to the championship only because of efforts like those of McCarthy and Phelan, who both performed far ahead of their seedings. McCarthy was the 10th seed in the 800 meters, but delivered a personal record that also broke the 38-year-old PHS record of John Perkins when he ran 1:53.15 for fifth place.

“It’s a record that’s been staring at me ever since I joined the team,” said McCarthy. 

“It’s something I knew I couldn’t graduate without taking down. A lot of records stood since 1981, which was the greatest team in school history and we’re showing we’re the best team since then. To break that record was one of the greatest accomplishments of my career. To do that in a meet that benefitted the team greatly made it more special. I’m looking forward to breaking my own record in these next couple meets.”

The top six finishers in each event plus six wild cards from all groups advance to next Saturday’s Meet of Champions at Northern Burlington High. McCarthy received a wild card to the 1,600 after placing 10th in 4:20.26. Phelan is headed to his first MOC after taking sixth in the triple jump with a personal-record of 44’7.

“I never thought I’d come close to Meet of Champs,” said Phelan. “I only started jumping last year. I thought, ‘Maybe if I started as a freshman, maybe I’d have a chance.’ I still can’t believe how far I’ve come.”

Phelan made a tough choice last year that benefitted the Tiger squad over the last two years.

“I had only done track in the winter season my sophomore year,” said Phelan. “I just did high jump and hurdles and I wasn’t too good. In the spring of freshman and sophomore year, I would do golf. My junior year, I had to make decision to do triple jump or golf, and I would have been the best player on the golf team. I wanted to get better at something and hang out with my friends on the track team. It was a tough choice. At first, my parents weren’t too happy with it. Now they’re glad I chose it.”

In addition to McCarthy and Phelan, PHS had others who came up with huge performances to put the squad in position to compete for the team title. Senior and Princeton-bound throwing star Paul Brennan won the discus at 181’3 and was third in the shot put with a throw of 56’11. Senior and Dartmouth commit Nils Wildberg won the long jump with a personal best of 23’11 and took fourth in both the 100 and 200 meters, with the latter controversially after tying the third-place finisher. Simon Schenk placed third in pole vault when he cleared 15-feet.

“We’re more proud of this group than we are of last year’s team,” said PHS associate head coach Ben Samara. “Everything they’ve been through and the freak injuries and heartbreak, they never stopped believing in themselves. It’s really a testament to them. We’re still missing a few pieces at the group meet, and they fought to the very end.”

The Tigers have produced some of their top efforts down the stretch, highlighted by Phelan as he bettered his sectional triple jump that was a near 2-feet improvement over his Mercer County Championships jump.

“It’s really just been the intensity of the meets and the pressure of having to do well pushing me to run faster in my run and jump harder,” said Phelan. “It’s also been my teammates. We’ve been pushing each other to perform to the best of our abilities. The team mentality has really helped.”

McCarthy was thinking similarly as he ran the 800. For the first time that he could remember, he did not look at the timing clock after the first of two laps. He knew it was fast and he knew the dynamic field would make the effort painful.

“I just knew I needed to keep my pedal down,” said McCarthy. “When I found myself in 6th or 7th, I said I could get points for the team. That last 200 is all about heart, and that’s what I like. I like to bring it all the way across the line and get points for the team.”

The time was a huge bonus but McCarthy’s first priority was helping the team.

“My coach, he kept saying, you could steal one or two points,” said McCarthy. “My distance coach said if you break the school record, you could still not score. I was very shocked with the time. When I saw the clock, low 1:50s, I thought the clock froze. To PR by 3 seconds was a surprise. To get fifth was a surprise. Those are the surprises I live for. That’s how we make these big runs, by keeping surprising each other.”

Due to their hard work and dedication, the accomplishments of McCarthy and Phelan aren’t a surprise to the PHS coaches. They’ve watched them earn their top marks.

“Jackson really went up to the mile from the 800,” said Samara. “He’s always been plugging away at the 800. There was this period of time where he was struggling to break 2:00. Once he broke 2:00, it’s been this consistent downward trajectory time-wise. Through all the adversity, it’s always been about the team and he’s always been positive. He puts his head down and works. Guys like Jackson and Jack are what our program is about. It’s what we hope everyone to become, not performance wise, but character wise.”

McCarthy’s 800 time allowed him to qualify for the championship division of the New Balance Nationals in Greensboro, N.C., and changed his mindset about what to run at the MOC.

“If I had got out in the mile and 800, I wanted to do the mile,” said the American University-bound McCarthy. 

“I’m assuming going forward, the mile and 1500 will be more of my event in college. But my coaches have changed my mind that after running 1:53, it’s time to run with the top guys. I can’t pass up that opportunity. I want to take advantage of the field and see if I can surprise myself again.”

Phelan, too, has shocked himself with his development. He will continue to compete next year at the Pratt Institute while matriculating in its five-year architecture plan. His seasons of PHS track have inspired him to continue.

“It’s been one of the best experiences of my life,” Phelan said. “Just to see our team come together and do so well at such a high level, it’s something I’ll never forget. It’s something I’ll take to my next adventures. I’ve learned so much from this group and they’re some of my best friends. We set the bar high for the next group of athletes. I hope they can match us if not beat us.”

There are still more records to achieve. The  Tigers have the MOC and then some will compete at nationals. 

“We’ve got Paul who’s the favorite in the discus, Nils is the favorite in the long jump,” said Samara in assessing the team’s prospects heading into the MOC. 

“One thing we weren’t able to do last year is take home any individual states titles so they want to do that. Simon Schenk and Jackson McCarthy are in top 10 and have a good chance to come home with medals. We’re looking to make some big noise. Paul and Nils have been gearing up all year for this meet. They’re cutting down some of their training now and trying to peak for the Meet of Champions and nationals, and 190 feet and 24 feet have been the targets for those guys.

PHS is looking for one more big New Jersey meet after coming off a heartbreaking, but thrilling runner-up finish which was fueled by having several athletes deliver peak efforts at the right time.

“It showed that every point mattered,” said Samara. “We knew we had a lot on the top end. A lot of people see Franklin has Mario. Both teams picked up points on the back end to separate themselves from rest of field. Jack Phelan had another PR. Jackson McCarthy went three seconds faster than ever before to place fifth in one of the best 800 races in state history. This doesn’t happen unless you have the belief that every point matters.”