January 29, 2020

PHS Track Competes Hard at County Meet, Laying Foundation for Success This Spring

SPOILS OF VICTORY: Princeton High girls’ track star Kendall Williamson shows off the medals she earned for winning the 55-meter dash and the 200 at the Mercer County Championships last weekend at the Bennett Center in Toms River. Sophomore Williamson’s heroics helped the PHS girls’ squad take fourth in the team standings at the event won by Lawrenceville.

By Justin Feil

Ben Samara saw championship potential in the Princeton High School girls track and field team four years ago.

Now the Tigers are trying to gear up to make that a possible come spring.

“I like to make bold predictions and way back when this senior class came in as freshmen, I started calling it the ‘2020 Plan,’” said PHS head coach Samara.

“We were going to round this group out and go after a county or sectional title. Over the last few years, we’ve had some heartbreak losing some of our athletes to things outside of track, or unavoidable things, but we’ve managed to loop in some of these freshmen and sophomores that came even after we started talking. That’s kept this 2020 Plan on track. We’re really, really excited for the spring and quietly confident we can make that plan a reality.”

The Tigers are gaining confidence with their results and knowing the sort of capability they have when their injured athletes return to the team. PHS sees a girls’ team that has developing sprint stars to go with a deep distance running core that could make the difference along with solid field events.

“Come spring, I think we’re going to really lean on that distance crew a lot and hopefully have the sprints to complement them,” said Samara.

“It’s going back to the old Princeton tradition where on the guys’ side we were more distance focused, so we’ll be relying on that distance crew for a lot. It’s good to have a ton of girls that you can turn to. We’re deep and to be honest, especially our freshmen, I don’t think they’ve even scratched the surface of where they’re going to be.”

A short-handed PHS girls squad that was missing three of four runners from last year’s 4×400 relay still placed fourth overall at the Mercer County Championships that concluded Saturday at the Bennett Center in Toms River.

“The girls, even without everyone, did a really nice job at counties,” said Samara after his team scored 36 1/3 points in the meet with was won by Lawrenceville. “They showed what we can do. At full strength, we’ll be a force to be reckoned with for sure.”

Sophomore Kendall Williamson led the charge for the Tigers, winning the 55-meter dash and the 200. She captured the 55 by 5-hundredths of a second in 7.52 seconds and won the 200 in 27.04, just two-hundredths of a second ahead of the runner-up.

“I’ve been excited for this particular meet for Kendall for a couple weeks now,” said Samara.

“I had the feeling that this would be her coming out party. She really showed her growth over the last couple of weeks. She buckled down on her training and had an increased focus on what she’s doing, and it all paid off for her. Both events were going to come right down to the wire so she had to be focused all the way through. She’s shown so much growth athletically and personally to be able to weather the storm in these races. She’s an absolute superstar.”

PHS also showed its strength in the distance running events. In the girls’ 3,200 meter, junior Charlotte Gilmore took second and freshman Lucy Kreipke placed third while freshman Robin Roth was fifth in the 1,600 meters.

“The best part of this distance crew is they’re young and they’re eager to improve,” said Samara.

“Lucy and Robin are two incredible freshmen doing amazing things. Charlotte is another one like Kendall who was a county champion outdoors as a sophomore who still has another year after this. Coach [Jim] Smirk’s distance crew is really kicking into high gear. We have five or six girls who could step in 800 through two-mile. We have a lot versatility and a lot of different things we can do with our lineup.”

In addition, the Tigers have displayed ability in the field events this year.  Freshman Ayo Ince was sixth in the high jump with a 4’ 8 clearance. Senior Kylee Silverman had a few big throws that went down as fouls before settling for ninth in the shot put.

“Kylee could have won the whole thing,” said Samara. “She had a couple throws that would have won. Kylee is probably going to be the top discus thrower outdoor. Ayo and Yani Ince are looking like they’ll be able to crack 5’0 in the high jump, which is going to give us extra versatility going after the sprint events. When Raina Williamson gets back to full strength, she’s a 16-and-a-half foot long jumper. When they get all back together, I think we’ll be OK. It’s about keeping the healthy ones healthy and getting the injured ones back on board.”

Raina Williamson is one of three members from the 4×400 relay that could return completely intact this year if their injuries heal. Williamson and Colleen Linko just returned to training last week and Gabby Goddard also is hoping to return to form.

“We’ll have them towards the end of the season indoors,” said Samara. “Then we’ll start looking to outdoors to really make some noise with that group.”

While her 4×400 teammates have been on the mend, Kendall Williamson has been working at becoming a more impactful sprinter on her own. She’s discovered that her best races are just starting to unfold, but she can be a star in the sprints.

“Kendall extends up to the 400, but her real strength is the short sprint events,” said Samara. “Having the 4×4 off the table for these last couple of months has actually allowed her to focus more on her training for the short sprints, which has allowed her to blossom there. It’s kind of a blessing in disguise.”

The injuries set back some training for the PHS sprinters, but it’s still a long time until the spring championship season. The Tigers are gearing up for sectionals on February 22, and the later date this year means a little more time for those injured athletes to gain fitness and training.

“Our biggest issue moving forward is getting these girls up to speed in time,” said Samara.

“We’re essentially starting from scratch in February. We have a plan in place to do it and we’re going to do our best when the time comes. Health and the training plan is definitely our No. 1 priority. The people who are healthy and ran on Saturday are going to continue to improve, there’s no doubt about it. We just have to loop in the rest of the people we’re missing. I think we’ll be good.”

Samara also likes what he sees in a less experienced boys team. PHS did not score a point at the county meet, but beneath that surface is a lot of potential that can come out over the next month.

“They don’t have a lot of meet experience,” said Samara. “It’s going to be a work in progress. We’re ready for that challenge.”

Junior Collin McCafferty was the top county finisher for the PHS boys, taking ninth in the 800 meters. In the 3,200, junior Jacob Bornstein took 14th, junior Daniel DiLella placed 16th and senior Nick Trenholm finished 17th. Junior Khalil Benjamin was 12th in the long jump, while junior Doraldinho Servil was 16th in the 200 meters.

The squad competed in the county meet without its top sprinter, senior and Bucknell-bound Matt Perello.

“Matt, who would have been a top scorer in the dash and 200, had the flu,” said Samara. “Another sprinter, Doraldinho, is really ready to break out. He probably would have scored in the 400 but he’s still learning the race and unfortunately got disqualified in the 400 for an early cut-in. I believe he’s going to be a sub-:50 400, runner this spring. He has a fantastic work ethic. We have a group of guys who are really excited to continue to develop. Khalil is a long jumper who first meet of the season jumped 20 feet, which was a great accomplishment for him. He’s doing that on not a lot of speed right now. I think he could be a 22-foot long jumper at some point. We have the building blocks. It’s just going to take this group some time, and we’re OK with that.”

PHS is looking for continued development among its young competitors. The Tigers will be able to gauge progress through a pair of upcoming home meets at Jadwin Gym at Princeton University and a trip to Ocean Breeze to race on a fast track.

“There’s a 200-meter showcase, which is basically the top 24 times in the state get to go straight to the Meet of Champions and compete,” said Samara.

“I’d love to see Kendall there for the girls, and I’d love to see Perello in that on the boys side. There’s a long jump showcase and we’d like to see Khalil qualify for the Meet of Champions there out of that. And between now and sectionals, we want to lock some of those qualifiers in too. On the girls side, we want to get our 4×4 ready. We know we’re behind the 8-ball a little bit, but we want to try to advance at least through the state program and remind the state what we can do come spring.”

Then the program will shift its focus to sectionals where its girls will have an impact, and where Perello and Servil have the best chance to advance for the boys.

“We have some distance guys that are really training well that could knock on the door,” said Samara. “We’re going to need to keep our heads down and keep working and see what we can do. Group 4 is incredibly talented.”

The Tigers are building a championship foundation during the indoor season with the hope that it will all come together this spring.

“Things are going well,” said Samara. “We had kind of a slow start this year. We’re reloading on the boys’ side, trying to find who’s going to step up and fill the void by all the graduations. On the girls’ side, injuries that happened in preseason outside of track to our sprint group set us back. We have a really good young distance crew on the girls side and a nice young core on the sprint side that I think will pay dividends once we get to the spring.”