November 18, 2020

Solidifying His Place as a Top Runner in PDS History, Senior Star Clingman Enjoys Memorable Final Season

BIG GUN: Gunnar Clingman shows his form this fall in his final season with the Princeton Day School boys’ cross country team. Clingman solidified his place as one of the top runners in program history, helping the Panthers go 4-3 and setting a PDS course record on two occasions. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

For Gunnar Clingman, producing a breakthrough season as a junior in 2019 put him on course to become one of the top runners in the history of the Princeton Day School boys’ cross country program.

Leading the pack for PDS, Clingman made steady improvement throughout that fall, culminating by taking second at the state Prep B state championship meet, clocking a time of 16:53 over the 5,000-meter course at the Blair Academy.

“I had run a 17:40 as a freshman, that was a one-off day, it was an outlier; my first race as a junior was two seconds off of that,” said Clingman, who took up running as a middle schooler.

“That was kind of ‘wow.’ I was progressing race by race and I kept going until the states. I went into states with a really good  mindset. I talked myself up to that so when I went out with Charlie [Charlie Koenig of Montclair Kimberley Academy] in the state race, I stayed up with him. He ended up taking me, he was a very strong runner. That was the moment where I was ready to keep going.”

With COVID-19 concerns leading to a limited 2020 season and the cancellation of state prep or county championship meets, Clingman turned his focus to the PDS pack.

“I didn’t have the state meet this year so it became less about me and more about who can we use this year to build the team,” said Clingman.

“It was a disappointment for everybody because as a team we saw ourselves in a much stronger place this year.”

PDS ended up emerging as a strong team, going 4-3 and performing well in both the XC 7-on-7 Invitational at Thompson Park on October 24 and its Home Prep Invitational a week later.

“This is the strongest team we have had in my time here,” said Clingman.

“We didn’t know what opportunities were going to present themselves because we had a long time of training before we started racing. We were going into everything pretty blind until we started to hit our stride. I would say we got more than we could have asked for from this season. It was extremely successful given the circumstances. If this had been a completely normal year, I couldn’t tell you what our prep time would have looked like.”

Clingman and classmate Ben Bigdelle helped bring the Panthers together before the season even started, organizing team workouts over the summer.

“Myself and Ben started to gather everybody around, not so much in person at first but eventually we did group up in smaller, distanced gatherings in August,” said Clingman.

“We would meet at Rosedale Park. We had great turnouts for that. We knew it was different, a lot more people were showing up. We had a lot of freshmen showing up which was really encouraging.”

Building on those workouts and extra training through the Run-Fit coaching group, Clingman set PDS course records on two occasions this fall, clocking a 17:48 time over the 5,000-meter lay-out in a meet on October 6 and then dropping the mark to 17:27 three days later.

“That course is a very hard course, it is a lot of elevation change and it is a lot of mud so your times are slower,” said Clingman.

“For a lot of teams, there is a group mentality that today is going to be a slow day. I am glad I was able to do it so that other people can see our course and be like that is a course I can still race.”

Looking back on his senior season, Clingman is grateful for the support he and his teammates received from PDS.

“I could not have done it and I don’t think anyone on the team could have done what we have done this year without the help of the coaches and the school allowing us to run,” said Clingman.

Panther head coach Woodside, for his part, is thrilled with what Clingman did over his PDS career.

“Gunnar really broke out last year during the season, he went from being a pretty decent runner to being one of the top prep runners in the state,” said Woodside.

“His emergence as one of the best runners in PDS history and his leadership has inspired his teammates.”

That inspiration led to a special fall, even without the championship meets.

“The boys’ team was the best team I have ever had here,” maintained Woodside, who has been guiding the program for six seasons.

“There is no question that a lot of guys ran really great and did stuff that we haven’t seen. Last year at the prep championships, I had seven guys at 20 minutes or better. This year we had seven guys at 19:01 or better. They were a whole minute faster and that makes your whole team that much better.”

Woodside credited Bigdelle with taking a key role in making the squad better.

“Ben was a solid rock No. 2 and was really instrumental in showing these kids how to run,” said Woodside, whose other seniors were Brendan Chia and Tharun Potluri.

“He was real important. He and Gunnar organized practices in the summer. I was not allowed to have contact with the team so I couldn’t really do much. These guys went and organized each workout, they got the kids to come. They were great leaders and were great for this team.”

Woodside sees some great things on the horizon for the Panthers with such returners as freshmen Arun Patel and Tristan Salvner along with sophomore Bram Silva and juniors William Sun, Will Brown, and Ben Jerris.

“We had two freshmen in our top six and a bunch of young guys who are going to be really good next year,” said Woodside, noting that the program’s JV team placed first in both invitationals this fall.

“It was really the depth. Every year I had one or two good runners. We would have three or four runners who were under 20 and then we would have a bunch of guys at 20 or 21. Now we have a bunch of guys who are under 19 and then between 19 and 20 as well. It does set up going forward to be a strong team  next year as well. Gunnar and Ben have been leaders and those are big runners for the team. That is going to hurt but we have good runners coming up and all we have got to do is to have the will to prepare and we should do very well.”

Clingman, for his part, is leaving with a proposal to help the Panthers prepare even better in the future.

“What we don’t have (that a lot of our competition has) is a track team,” said Clingman, who may continue running at the next level and is considering track programs as he looks at colleges.

“I think that PDS needs a track team to not only make themselves a more competitive force in running but to give runners opportunities from other sports. It would really benefit everybody. It seems to be a no-brainer for me. The rest of the seniors are advocating for this and it is part of what we want to leave behind when we leave.”