November 11, 2020

Holding PDS Girls’ Cross Country Team Together, Hollander Savors Undefeated Senior Campaign

PERFECT STORM: Members of the Princeton Day School girls’ cross country team show off the spoils of victory after they placed first in the Girls’ Varsity White race at the XC 7-on-7 Invitational meet at Thompson Park in Jamesburg. The victory at the meet was one of many highlights in a special fall which saw the squad post an 11-0 record and won two invitational meets. Pictured, from left, are assistant coach Kelly Grosskurth, head coach John Woodside, Madeline Weinstein, Emily McCann, Alex Hollander, MacKenzie Mazzarisi, assistant coach Chris Devlin, Brooke Law, Maddy Flory, and Harleen Sandhu. (Photo provided by Chris Devlin/PDS)

By Bill Alden

Alex Hollander was prepared for a rocky ride this fall in her senior season for the Princeton Day School girls’ cross country team.

“I was feeling pretty anxious and nervous,” said team co-captain Hollander, noting that PDS had lost some key runners from the 2019 squad who were expected to come back.

“I knew we were going to have a full team because the roster showed that but I hadn’t heard of people who were signed up because they were new freshmen. I definitely wasn’t expecting a good season.”

But the addition of three freshman, Emily McCann, Brooke Law, and Harleen Sandhu, helped ease Hollander’s nerves as the trio excelled from the start of preseason training.

“It lifted my mindset for the year because you are starting off with something so uncertain to begin with because of all of the restrictions,” said Hollander.

“All of a sudden seeing three freshmen girls run straight ahead of me as I am trying my hardest to keep up. It is crazy.”

In the first race of the season, PDS defeated Stuart Country Day School, Rutgers Prep, and Hun School as newcomer McCann cruised to victory. That was the beginning of a special campaign with nobody being able to keep up with the Panthers this fall as they went 11-0 and won two invitational meets.

“I was more towards the back of the pack in that race; in terms of our PDS runners, I was always No. 4, 5, or 6,” said Hollander, recalling the opening meet.

“At first I was running with Harleen and Brooke and at the end of the race they were at least 15 or 20 seconds ahead of me. It was like okay, maybe this season won’t be good for me but it made me realize how much more I cared about the team than the times.”

Hollander actually helped keep the team alive as she was the only girl in the PDS program when she took up cross country as a freshman in 2017.

“It was a little difficult because it was something I wasn’t used to or expected,” said Hollander, who plays lacrosse in the spring and initially tried cross country at the suggestion of her parents to have something to keep her active in the fall.

“I had heard that PDS had a team in the past. It just happened to be that I was the only girl that year. It helped to have them [the boys] as a team support because I had 20 people cheering for me at races even if I was the only one running. I was trying to impress them in the sense that I can prove myself.”

After making it through that first season, Hollander got into the sport.

“I didn’t really know anything about it at first,” said Hollander. “I thought you just ran a few miles every day, but I learned there are a lot of different workouts and stuff to it. I grew to like it enough to come back the next year.”

Over the years, Hollander grew into a leader for the squad. “I have had a few leadership positions at PDS and cross country made me realize how much I liked being a leader because I got the chance to be one of the captains last year,” said Hollander.

“That evoked a sense of really wanting to get these girls and boys, they might be freshmen or they might be new to the team, to feel more comfortable.”

A  dominant victory for PDS in the Girls’ Varsity White race at the XC 7-on-7 Invitational meet at Thompson Park in Jamesburg on October 24 proved to be a highlight of the perfect season. McCann placed first individually in the meet, posting a time of 20:43 over the 5,000-meter course, with Law taking fourth, Sandhu coming in fifth and senior co-captain MacKenzie Mazzarisi finishing seventh.

“The nerves of the team were really high and once the starting gun went off I saw our white uniforms so far up,” said Hollander, who took 17th in 24:58 as PDS placed first of five schools in the team standings.

“It was clear the whole race that we were dominating. It was unexpected; we were told there was a chance we could win. My time was not what I wanted but I was really thankful. I personally would have loved to have a really good season. I think it spoke more to what the essence of the team was for me as opposed to the competitive aspects of it like the times and numbers.”

Looking back on the campaign, which also saw the Panthers win their Home Prep Invitational on October 31 against Stuart, Pennington School, Hun, Rutgers Prep, and Wilberforce with five runners in the top nine, Hollander was amazed by the squad’s consistent excellence. 

“What stands out for me the most is how at every race, I would see everyone take off and I would see this group of white uniforms stepping ahead and no one infiltrating that,” said Hollander.

“Seeing from the start how powerful and dominant we were was something that struck me every race. It is really great because it is not like we are a team of seniors. We have two seniors and then we have four underclassmen who are really strong runners.”

PDS head coach John Woodside was thrilled by the strong competitive fire he saw from his runners.

“I can’t say enough about how the girls competed, how they prepared, and how they performed,” said Woodside.

“As the season went on all of a sudden they are the 500-pound gorilla, they are the team that is dominating everybody. It becomes just wow, there is some pressure but they rose to the challenge.”

A key to the team’s success was its finishing kick. “One of the hallmarks of some of the top girls on our team was how they ran at the end of the races,” added Woodside.

“They got better at the end. Brooke was one of those who always did better in the last mile. Emily had a couple of epic battles where girls were battling her for almost two miles and then she just ran away from them. Mackenzie was always really strong in the end and Harleen had a good finish too.”

McCann’s individual dominance came as a surprise to Woodside.

“She had a very great season,” said Woodside, noting that the precocious freshman’s personal best this fall of 20:31 is the top time for a PDS girls’ runner in recent memory.

“We are going to assess the season and talk about her preparation this year and then talk about how we are going to prepare for next year. She had good workouts right away but nothing spectacular, nothing that would have indicated that she was going to go out and dominate like she did. For her to go through the season and not be defeated by anybody was a testament to her competitiveness.”

In Woodside’s view, the squad should be very competitive going forward.

“Brooke and Harleen are freshmen and we have Maddy Weinstein coming back and she was a sophomore,” said Woodside.

“We are going to try to see if we can get a couple of more girls and go for another great season.”

Woodside, though, realizes that it will be hard to find another great leader like Hollander. 

“When you look at what Alex did for this team over four years, there isn’t really much you could say that would overstate it,” asserted Woodside.

“She was everything. She was the only girl as a freshman. She stuck it out, she never quit. She was able to attract girls every year and this season the whole thing just came together. Alex’s legacy here is not only that there is a girls’ team but there is a really competitive girls’ team. She was a tremendous leader. She should be the first one to tell you that she didn’t have the senior season she wanted to have. The important thing is that she was leading and what she was establishing here. She has left behind something to be very proud of.”

Hollander, for her part, is certainly glad that she stuck with the program.

“It is one of the things I am more proud of, if not most proud of, at PDS,” said Hollander.

“It is not a story a lot of people have to tell. I am excited that I have that to share with other girls and other people who are looking for empowerment. Whenever I tell people what happened even if it was kind of coincidental, that I just signed up and I happened to be the only girl and what it turned into, it makes people say wow. I don’t think there are too many things at PDS that reach that level of wow.”