October 28, 2020

Having Made Steady Progress as a Runner, Leader, Bornstein Setting the Pace for PHS Boys’ Cross Country

BORN TO RUN: Princeton High boys’ cross country runner Jacob Bornstein displays his form in a recent race. Senior star Bornstein is setting the pace for PHS this fall as runner and a leader. The Tigers are next in action when they compete on October 30 at the Reed/Byrne Farm in Ewing. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Jacob Bornstein’s high school career began as the fifth finisher on the Princeton High School boys’ cross country squad that won the 2017 New Jersey freshman state championship race at Thompson Park.

It is ending with the PHS senior at the top of the Tigers varsity lineup, assuming a leadership role, competing among the best in the county and sectional, and trying to leave a legacy after four years of growth.

“We all worked really hard together that year as freshmen,” said Bornstein.

“We were very fortunate to win the title. I’ve just been putting in the same effort each year. Things have been going really well for me. Unfortunately with some of my other teammates from my freshman crew, they haven’t been doing so well with their health because some of them have injuries. It happens. I haven’t been injured recently – some minor knee issues earlier this summer. I’m doing what I’ve always done and running as best that I can.”

Over the years, Bornstein has made steady progress. He jumped from fifth on the freshman team to fifth on the varsity as a sophomore after the team graduated some key runners, becoming a dependable runner who emerged over the season.

“We nicknamed him ‘Wubby’ and it was an idea that no matter how bad it got, he would be there,” said PHS head coach Jim Smirk. “That’s where it started and all of a sudden he started doing things like winning races and we were saying, where did that come from? You’re supposed to be the security blanket and you’re setting the tone. Last year, coming out of cross country and going into winter, that’s when we really started to see him evolve.”

After a junior cross country season that showed more promise even as PHS failed to advance out of sectionals, Bornstein broke through during the indoor track season. He clocked a new personal record of 9:48.38 in the 3,200 to finish fifth in the Central Jersey Group 4 championship and advance to the Group 4 state meet.

“It was pretty motivating,” said Bornstein. “It really does show that hard work and a good mindset really pays off in your running career. Everything, all my training with my teammates, all the miles and hours I’ve plugged into this, it paid off. It’s motivating because I know that I can achieve more I know I can. When I went into that race, I didn’t really think I could run that fast. I just did what I could and I got a good result.”

Heading into this past spring, Bornstein was prepared to take that momentum into outdoor track when that season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The summer too was filled with uncertainty, though Bornstein and the team stayed motivated with challenges like having small teams combine to run the equal distance of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Under the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) plan for fall sports, public schools got a later start to a season that will be abbreviated to finish with sectionals on November 14, not continue on to groups and the Meet of Champions. The later start has affected teams finding their identities.

“We’re definitely behind in terms of our team dynamic, but our training is fine,” said Smirk.

“That’s the funny thing. You look at our workouts on paper and we’re in good shape. We’re healthy and working hard. It is taking a bit for us to be the team we want to be.”

Aiming to help the team dynamic, Bornstein has jumped into a leadership role for the Tigers. While many of his classmates battle back from injuries, he is trying to push the younger runners in practice while meets bring them race experience.

“I do have a lot more responsibility on the team,” said Bornstein. “I was just used to being told what to do by coaches and seniors who are captains. It’s not too big of a task because most of this team is pretty respectful. A lot of the teammates want to do well so they listen up. I enjoy my role as a leader on the team, as one of the captains. It’s pretty purposeful for me to be there. I know that these guys are looking up and counting on me to be there for them, so I know I need to give it my best and full attention.”

Getting off to a good start this fall, Bornstein won his first race of the season in 16:59 over a 5,000-meter course at Mercer County Park and then placed second in 17:11 in his next outing at Reed/Byrne Farm in Ewing.

“Positive wise, just the fact that we have meets is really good,” said Bornstein, who has a personal record of 16:52 set at last year’s sectionals.

“Some schools unfortunately don’t have a season right now. Just being out there and being able to compete is really awesome. The meets do feel different. There are a lot less spectators, we’re competing against fewer schools and fewer runners.”

With teams being limited to nine runners at each race, Smirk has rotated who competes each time. The PHS team is evolving with each race and even Bornstein still has room to grow.

“Now he’s kind of got a target on his back,” said Smirk, whose team is next in action when it competes on October 30 at the Reed/Byrne Farm in Ewing.

“Guys know he’s good and so want to race against him. Even in our dual meets, guys bring the fire because he’s on the line. It’s a little different position for him. He’s been anonymous for years. That’s not the case anymore. He’s got a lot of guys gunning for him and he’s going to have to make that adjustment.”

Adjusting to that role, Bornstein is balancing his own competitive drive with his team responsibilities as he tries to push the Tigers to new heights. Helping to set the team up for future success means being a welcoming influence to new runners and setting an example of how to get the most out of themselves.

“Right now I’m trying to send a message that if you work your tail off and stay consistent with your training and stay healthy – eat well and get a good night rest, that eventually you’ll be better and find results,” said Bornstein.

Based on Bornstein’s improvement each year of high school, Smirk believes that he will be even better in college. College running is something that Bornstein didn’t seriously consider until last year’s indoor track breakthrough race. He has gained some valuable lessons about himself over his PHS career through the trials of plenty of races – good and bad.

“I’ve learned that you can always do more than you think you can,” said Bornstein.

“Running is a very mental sport. It’s really more mental than physical. In my 3,200 race and my cross country races, I’m hurting, my legs hurt, I’m in a lot of pain, but I just have to dig deep in my mind and tell myself that I can keep going and I can give more. You can apply that to other things in life too. Overall, I’ve learned you need pain to succeed in life. Without pain, it’s harder to get places.”

As he looks to continue his running career at the next level, Bornstein is searching for the right fit in schools while still focusing on making the Tigers as good as possible in his final season with the program. Bornstein and his teammates are hoping to improve on their eighth place finish at last year’s sectionals to close the year and his scholastic cross country career on a high note.

“I’m motivated because this will be my last high school cross country race coming up next month,” said Bornstein.

“I’m motivated to do well. I’m also motivated because I’ve been putting in a lot of training over the summer and early school year and so have my teammates. We want to do well and show that our hard work does pay off.”