November 18, 2020

PHS Girls’ Cross Country Earns Historic Sectional Crown As Senior Medvedeva Savors Program Coming Full Circle

PACK MENTALITY: Members of the Princeton High girls’ cross country take off in a race this fall. Last Saturday, PHS utilized the depth in its pack to place first in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Central Jersey Group 4 sectional championship meet at Thompson Park in Jamesburg. Pictured are Yana Medvedeva (left rear), Emma Lips (left foreground), Lucy Kreipke (middle), Kyleigh Tangen (hidden in the back), Sofia DaCruz (front right), and Robin Roth (far right). (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Yana Medvedeva felt an extra push being a senior as she competed in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Central Jersey Group 4 sectional cross country championship meet at Thompson Park last Saturday.

One of four seniors in the Princeton High girls’ lineup, Medvedeva closed out the Tigers scoring in 22nd place as PHS put its first four finishers in the top 10 to win their first CJ Group 4 sectional crown in school history.

“It feels so good,” said Medvedeva after a season-best 20:55.70 clocking. “It’s amazing. I’m a senior so it’s a really full circle moment. Two years ago, we couldn’t even qualify out of the section. I still can’t really believe it.”

The Tigers’ depth allowed them to edge a strong Montgomery team that had the top two individual finishers in the race. As for PHS, Charlotte Gilmore, a senior, led the way in fourth place in 19:32.50. Freshman Kyleigh Tangen – the lone newcomer to the Tigers’ top seven from a year ago – placed sixth in 19:59.30 and sophomore Lucy Kreipke was seventh in 20:04.50. Sophomore Robin Roth closed well for 10th place in 20:16.70. Medvedeva was 22nd, Sofia Dacruz was 33rd, and Emma Lips was 38th. It added up to a 49-54 win over runner-up Montgomery. Hunterdon Central was third with 100 points.

“We knew the race was going to come down to how tight our pack was,” said PHS head coach Jim Smirk.

“Robin coming in 10th there and making a big move late definitely helped. Yana was out the back at the mile mark. She really started to climb the ranks from a mile forward. We didn’t have the math right at the finish, but we felt good.”

The girls had to wait for the official results to be announced. That moment didn’t come until after the PHS boys raced and took fifth. Sophomore Marty Brophy led the way for the Tiger boys, taking 14th in 17:11.10 with senior Jacob Bornstein finishing 27th in 17:25.80. The young Tiger boys’ squad had 137 points in taking fifth with Hunterdon Central just ahead in fourth with 121 points. South Brunswick won the title with 57.

While Bornstein, the team’s lone senior, had hoped for a better finish, he still made a big impact on the squad.

“I don’t think Jacob had the day he wanted, but his efforts led to a big step forward for our team,” said Smirk.

“It’s a pretty young team. I’m really happy with what they accomplished. They had some things they considered unfinished business for this season, and that’s a good thing. They’re hungry and they want to do the work. They see bigger and better things for themselves moving forward, a lot because of Jacob’s leadership. It wasn’t the most successful day we could have had, but it was an important day for us to have to lay the groundwork for future success.”

Future success was all that was on the minds of the PHS girls after they placed seventh in the sectional in 2018. The Tigers jumped to third last year, their best finish since coming two points from a sectional crown in 2016. Their last sectional title came as a Group 3 school in 2014.

“We were the team nobody was looking at,” said Smirk. “We were the team that had the chance to do something special moving forward. Then COVID hit and it definitely threw a wrench in the works, but to the girls’ credit, they kept doing the work and running the part of who they are – their identity. So at the 11th hour, when we got our season back, the focus was on continuing to grow the team and being the best we could be and letting everything else fall into place.”

PHS’s season was in jeopardy midway through the summer due to COVID concerns but their motivation began to return when the shortened season was approved. The Tigers held virtual pasta parties, they got together as frequently as possible over Zoom and they looked at workouts as opportunities, not chores.

“We’ve really capitalized on forming a strong team bond and team culture, not just teammate bonds, but friendship bonds and knowing all your teammates are going to do everything they can to help contribute to your success and knowing you have that role to contribute to theirs,” said Medvedeva. “It makes everything so much more exciting and showing up to meets so much more exciting.”

The Tigers ended up making the sectional a thriller. PHS entered the meet confident that they had a chance, but it took some gutsy racing over the second half of the race to secure the historic title. Seconds decided their fate. Kreipke was just seven seconds ahead of the next finisher, Roth was only four seconds better than 11th place, and Medvedeva was less than a second ahead of the next finisher and only eight seconds ahead of Montgomery’s fifth runner.

“I passed a couple people on the uphill definitely,” said Medvedeva. “On that last little sprint around the baseball field, that was a very stressful part of the race. It was super muddy and there were a lot of people trying to pass each other. I thought Montgomery was right behind me, and I think she was, so I was really focusing on not letting the green pass me. I was completely zoned in. I don’t know how many I passed, but I know I passed a couple on the last mile.”

Medvedeva and the Tigers gained confidence from a late workout at Thompson Park in which they emphasized the final stretch of the race. It also helped her to know it was PHS’s final race. It pushed her through the final stretch.

“It was a really strong feeling of now or never to just finish the race a little faster than you thought you could have,” said Medvedeva. “It was our last one.”

It was the same feeling for four of the senior girls led by Gilmore, who continued to climb in her sectional finishes. She took her first top-five sectional finish Saturday.

“She’s been for a long time our low stick,” said Smirk of Gilmore. “She’s been the runner who day in and day out pushes the lead. Having her there today doing that was a big part of our success. It’s a feedback thing. She does that and has a lot of success and that feeds the girls who are running behind her to challenge themselves more and they take some pressure off her and let her run better. I think that’s what we saw today – Charlotte ran a good solid consistent race, and underneath that some girls took some really solid risks late and gave us the chance to be successful.”

Medvedeva gave the squad a strong finish to their scoring, having started running in seventh grade at her parents’ urging and emerging as a reliable contributor throughout her career for PHS.

“She’s always been a strong stick-to-it kind of kid, definitely the kind of kid you want in your four or five spot,” said Smirk.

“No matter how bad it gets, they’re going to keep powering through and that’s exactly how she ran. Early on the race went out pretty strong. She was a little out of the pack. A lot of other runners would have gotten a little squirrelly, or a little loose and tried to do too much, and she stuck to her guns and started working up through the pack and put herself in a good position, and from there ran really consistently. That’s really been the hallmark for her, that very reliable and very tough athlete on our team.”

It helped that so many PHS runners had years of experience in the sectional environment, and wanted to go out on top. With seniors making up more than half of their top seven, there was extra motivation built in.

“I think it’s definitely changed the mindset,” said Medvedeva. “We’re a pretty tight squad – the top seven. It’s kind of sad to think it’s our last year, it’s our last chance. I think it definitely motivated everyone a lot more, especially the seniors and also the sophomores and Kyleigh, the freshman, just to think it’s our last opportunity as a group to seal the deal. It definitely motivated us a lot.”

The win completed a year that began with great uncertainty but went as well as could have been imagined. The Tigers were unbeaten through the regular season to lead up to their penultimate moment.

“The thing that impressed me the most wasn’t their work ethic,” said Smirk. “Their work ethic has been great for a long time. It was their patience. They were very willing to be patient and continue to work knowing that every day we got to train together, every race we got was another great opportunity we didn’t have as of mid-August. They really took advantage of that and bathed in how good it was to be together and enjoyed that together.”

The PHS runners made the most of their chances together, accomplishing history in the end. The sectional crown is something that the Tigers worked for years to make a reality.

“It’s this feeling that we know we got it,” said Medvedeva. “Nobody can really believe it yet. We’re hoping on getting some type of outdoor dinner celebration going on next week. Hopefully that’ll happen.”