June 12, 2019

PHS Senior Star Brennan Achieves Dream, Winning Discus Title at Meet of Champions

CHAMPIONSHIP EFFORT: Princeton High boys’ track star Paul Brennan heaves the shot put in a meet this spring. Last Saturday, senior and Princeton University-bound Brennan placed first in the discus and 10th in the shot put at the New Jersey outdoor Meet of Champions at Northern Burlington High. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

A goal, a season, a dream, and a career all came together for Paul Brennan at the New Jersey outdoor Meet of Champions (MOC) last Saturday at Northern Burlington High.

The Princeton High senior won the discus with a throw of 186’ 8 to become the first outdoor champion for the Tiger boys since Stephen Fletcher repeated in the 110-meter hurdles in 1983. (PHS senior Nils Wildberg won the long jump at the indoor MOC this winter.)

“It feels awesome,” said Brennan, who is headed to Princeton University where he will compete for its men’s track program.

“It’s been a goal for probably since I was a freshman and probably earlier. It’s always been a goal to outdo my brother (Tim, a former PHS standout thrower who went on to compete at Dartmouth College). He got third in his senior year. I wanted to win it. It’s awesome. It’s been a lot of work. It’s always been the ultimate goal to get a gold in the discus.”

In a topsy-turvy season of soaring sky highs and sinking low-blows, the state title was a huge lift for Brennan and his teammates, an achievement that didn’t happen last year for the Tigers. When everything else seemed to go right for the PHS boys in 2018, they did not have any individual champions at the MOC.

“A state title is a fitting end to an amazing high school career,” said PHS associate head coach Ben Samara. “With all the ups and downs the boys team has had and all the near misses they’ve had as a team and individually, it was really nice for Paul to get one. It meant a lot for him and for the team.”

Brennan headlined a strong showing by the Little Tigers at the MOC. Senior and Dartmouth-bound Wildberg placed second in the long jump with a leap of 22’ 6 in a competition that was contested on a sub-varsity runway into a headwind.

“The conditions of the long jump competition weren’t ideal but Nils showed a lot of heart, trying to compete through it,” said Samara. “Unfortunately coming in as the favorite, things didn’t work out for him and he’s upset about it. He’s looking forward to nationals. He’s one of the best in the country. I expect big things from him there.”

Junior Simon Schenk also earned silver, taking second in the pole vault when he cleared 15’ 6.

“Simon always seems to step up his game as the levels get bigger,” said Samara. “It came down to him and guy from Watchung Hills (Bradley Jelmert). He had his best competition of the season right at the end. He’s been working extremely hard to get back to the 15’ 6 level. He’s another kid who was able to raise his game on the biggest stage.”

Senior and American University-bound Jackson McCarthy ran 1:55.09 for sixth place in the 800 meters, earning his first individual medal at MOC.

“We knew he’d be one of the top guys since he was one of the top guys in Group 4 and a lot of those guys would be the best in the state,” said Samara. “And now he has the confidence that he can be in the top echelon. He had a smart race plan. He didn’t have to do anything out of the ordinary to score. Running with these guys he showed is something he’s comfortable with.”

PHS also had a pair of wild card entries compete on the girls’ side. Junior Colleen Linko took 15th in 57.50 seconds in the 400 while senior Siena Moran placed 19th in the 1,600 meters in 5:10.88.

“Although Siena didn’t have her best time of the season, she’s proven all throughout the season that she’s capable of running with the best runners in the state,” said Samara.

“It was great to be able to showcase her talents. And Colleen was right around her PR. She took a big risk in the first 200. She died a little in the final 200, but it was nice to see she could be around her PR even after a big risk like that.”

After his win in the discus, Brennan showed another side of his throwing talent, finishing 10th in the shot put with a throw of 53’ 10.

“As soon as I finished the discus, I waited 20 or 30 minutes and then I had to go throw,” recalled Brennan. “I was a little tired, a little exhausted. I’m pale and the sun was beating down on me. Sunburn was getting to me. I was a little off technically.”

Nothing was going to bring him down after his golden moment earlier.

“Coming out with a Meet of Champions title speaks for itself,” Brennan said. “I’ve been working for it for years.”

Reflecting on the title, Brennan gave a lot of credit to his older brother Tim, who graduated from Dartmouth three years ago and has overseen his younger brother’s strength and conditioning program.

“He’s really excited for me,” said the younger Brennan. “My brother has kind of been a coach and a mentor throughout my high school career. He’s programmed all my workouts – my plyometrics, my lifting. He’s planned it out. After he graduated he’s been working with me. He’s been supportive of me.”

Brennan had been encouraged by a big start to the season at the Penn Relays, ending up as the top American with a personal-record throw of 186’ 11.

“You could see I was able to achieve really big throws at the meets I wanted to,” said Brennan. “I had it at the Penn Relays. I was able to train again hard after that.”

But shortly after came a frustrating day at the Mercer County Championships on May 11 when Brennan did the javelin in addition to the discus and shot put and the result was a rushed effort in which he and the team came up short of their championship goals.

“That was one big downer,” said Brennan, who won the discus and took third in the javelin as PHS placed third in the team standings.

“I was able to take that off my mind. I’ve had sickness and injuries. And going up and down and up down, to end with a Meet of Champions title means everything to me. I wish I could have scored the extra points to win the county, sectional and state title, but individually it’s awesome to end that frustration with a title for the track and field team. I can’t ask for more than that, especially after such a season.”

Getting to gold has been a long and steady climb for Brennan. He has jumped each season in the MOC discus, from 18th as a freshman, to seventh his sophomore year, and then third last year.

“As a freshman, it was definitely a lot easier,” said Brennan. “I came in with a decent amount of talent and I was pretty big as a freshman. I was able to throw a PR of 163’ 5 which was one of the top throws in the country. I was improving pretty drastically each month. As the years came along, there were a lot of little struggles and nagging injuries. There were a lot of setbacks. It got a little harder each year to improve. I have a ton of support systems, whether it’s my family or my coaches or friends.”

Another factor that helped lead to Brennan’s success this spring was getting the tutelage of Craig Wood, who came out of a long period of retirement to coach the PHS throwers.

“He’s extremely helpful about mental aspects,” said Brennan. “Him being there for me was a tremendous help to me becoming a more consistent thrower. He’s allowed me to go above and beyond. I was fortunate to have someone so knowledgeable coach me.”

All of the lessons that Brennan soaked in over the years came together on the biggest stage of state competition. His final scholastic meet in New Jersey will be memorable forever.

“I was able to focus on myself and going out for a title for myself,” said Brennan. “I really enjoyed it. It was a testament to all the support systems around me and the hard work I’ve put in the last four years. It was definitely hard to keep pushing but the people around me made it a lot easier.”

Samara credited Brennan’s focus through the meet with his success. There were big swings from other competitors — some throwing far better than ever, some struggling under pressure.

“It was a roller coaster but he was steady all the way through,” said Samara. “He stayed consistent and did exactly what he wanted to do.”

It was a microcosm of the season. Through ups and downs, Brennan remained steady in his focus and determination to add to PHS’s history in the end.

“I think this year it was patience and being knowledgeable about what the process is like,” he said.

“I was being a little impatient going into last season trying to throw really big throws. I was getting frustrated and trying to change too many things. This year, just learning from experience, knowing what I was going to throw and how far my program would let me throw and what events to train for helped. I had thrown shot put a lot in the winter so I knew I needed to train for discus more.”

The balance in his training paid big dividends down the stretch as Brennan moved into the MOC as the top seed in the discus. He threw well under the pressure of those expectations to secure the championship.

“I’ve been dreaming about it,” said Brennan. “Now that it’s come true, it’s an awesome feeling.”

Shooting for some more awesome performances, Brennan will compete in the discus and the hammer throw at the New Balance Nationals in Greensboro, N.C., this weekend.

In addition to Brennan, a number of PHS athletes will be taking part in the national competition. Senior Tucker Zullo and McCarthy will compete in the boys’ emerging elite mile and Moran will run in the girls emerging elite mile. Linko, Raina Williamson, Kendall Williamson and Gracie Poston will compete in the 1,000 meter Swedish relay. Linko, both Williamsons and Moran will do the girls sprint medley. Linko, Raina Williamson, Matthew Perello and McCarthy are running the mixed 4×400. Moran, Kendall Williamson, Charlotte Gilmore and Yana Medvedeva are in the girls distance medley relay. Linko, both Williamsons and Poston will run the super sprint medley relay. Wildberg is in the boys long jump championships, and McCarthy is in the boys 800 championships.

“For discus, my goal for a while has been to be an All-American,” Brennan said. “If not, a PR would be awesome. I’m trying to get over that 190 mark which would be incredible. For the hammer, I’d want the same thing. I can’t ask for a ton because I’ve only had six or seven practices max. If it clicks, it clicks. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

Brennan will put more time into the hammer and the indoor weight throw next year at his next stop at Princeton, as he could emerge as the perfect successor to the team’s graduating Heptagonals hammer champion Adam Kelly.

“I can’t even describe how excited I am,” said Brennan. “The team is phenomenal. I haven’t trained with people significantly stronger than me before. I’m excited to train with the big dogs and see if I can improve drastically. They have the best hammer thrower, and I want to take that step and try to replace him as best I can.”

It’s the next dream for Brennan, who four years after he began to consider winning a state title, reached his goal in his final chance to deliver another high point for him and PHS.