Taking Helm of Wilberforce Cross Country in 2017, Szeliga Sees Growth of Girls’ Team as a Highlight
FAST COMPANY: Members of The Wilberforce School cross country team enjoy the moment after they competed in the NJSIAA (New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association) Non-Public South Sectional at Oak Ridge Park in Clark in mid-November to end the 2020 season. Pictured, from left, are Colin Mejias, Josh Lai, Caleb Brox, Jeremy Sallade, Andrew Madigan, Laura Prothero, Sophia Park, Annie Whitman, Joel Seidle, David Dorini, Lydia Sallade, head coach Lois Szeliga, and Brooke Mersereau. The boys’ team placed second at the meet while the girls’ squad, who had only two members in 2017, placed fourth. (Photo provided by Lois Szeliga)
By Bill Alden
Lois Szeliga took the helm of The Wilberforce School cross country program in 2017 as a stopgap.
With previous coach Rebeka Stowe, an aspiring Olympic steeplechaser and pro runner with the NJNY Track Club, stepping down in August that year to pursue other opportunities, Szeliga, a stay-at-home mother of six children, didn’t seem like a likely replacement.
But with a background in running that included starring at Watchung Hills High and then going on to walk on at Rutgers University where she ended up as a captain of the cross country team, the Wilberforce community reached out to Szeliga to step in and lead the program.
“My kids go to Wilberforce and someone told them I had run and just threw out my name; I think it was about a week or two before the season,” said Szeliga.
“I wasn’t planning on it. My high school running days were so important to me and I would be heartbroken if these kids didn’t have a season. They were talking about what do we do, could the captains lead, so I said yes and it has been so rewarding.”
One of the most rewarding aspects for Szeliga was getting more girls into the program at the school, which moved to its current site on Mapleton Road in Princeton at the former Saint Joseph’s Seminary.
“When I started there was two girls on the team so there wasn’t a team,” said Szeliga. “Now this is the third year we have had a team so that is exciting.”
One of those two girls, Lydia Sallade, played a key role in growing the team.
“Lydia recruited girls to come out for the team,” said Szeliga. “We would have Chick-fil-A lunches and she would talk about how fun it is so she helped build the team.”
For Sallade, the prospect of being one of two girls on the team in her freshman year was a bit daunting.
“I was very hesitant to because I was only one of two girls at first,” said Sallade.
“I was very nervous about it because the cross country team was mostly junior and senior boys that I had never really talked to.”
Those boys ended up helping Sallade develop a passion for the sport.
“Within the first day of practice, they just took me under their wing,” recalled Sallade. “It was through their joy and their love of the sport that I really came to love the sport.”
Seeing her father, Chris, a Princeton University track star in the early 1990s, along with running in local events helped spark Sallade’s interest in running.
“Growing up cheering him on the sidelines of races and just seeing how much he loved the sport, I have always grown up valuing running as well,” said Sallade.
“I definitely came into running with the same mentality that this is an amazing outlet. It is also an amazing community I can connect with.”
Sallade worked with Szeliga to help get girls in the Wilberforce community to join the program.
“I wanted a full girls’ team,” said Sallade. “Everyone in my school loves coach Szeliga. They know how supportive she is and has a really good balance of hard work and fun. I just told everyone that you have to join cross country. In my sophomore year we actually had 12 girls on the team so within a year I had a lot more teammates.”
Working hard, Sallade progressed into a top runner for the program. “My junior year was definitely the fastest I had been,” said Sallade.
“I remember when we actually ran Holmdel, I was chasing down and placing in the top 30 at the state meet. It was just a lot of fun. I went from being alright to now I am one of the top two girls so that was a lot of fun.”
With her senior season this fall in doubt due to COVID concerns, Sallade had fun on a daily basis after the team got the go-ahead to practice and compete.
“I was just so grateful to be able to have some sense of normalcy in this crazy time,” said Sallade.
“Just to be able to run with my friends without the masks and to train with the people I have been with every single day, it just really meant a lot. Every meet we had was like a cherry on the top. It was a gift that just kept coming.”
As a captain of the girls’ squad, Sallade has looked to give the younger runners the benefit of her experience.
“I have been so grateful for my experiences as a captain,” said Sallade.
“Myself and David, the boys’ captain, were with the old group that has now since graduated so it has been really crucial for us to be the transition. We have been doing a lot of mentoring and really making sure that we are leaving a strong foundation for next year.”
Peaking at the NJSIAA (New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association) Non-Public South Sectional at Oak Ridge Park in Clark on mid-November, the girls’ team produced a strong performance at the sectional.
The Wolverines took fourth in the team standings of the event won by Trinity Hall. Sophomore Sophia Park led the way for Wilberforce, taking third individually with a time of 20:30:30 over the 5,000-meter course at Oak Park in Clark with Sallade taking 12th in 21:49.70, junior Annie Whitman coming in 14th in 22:11.60, and junior Laura Prothero placing 26th in 23:38.40.
“That was definitely one of the highlights, the boys did so well and there were so many PRs on both the boys’ and girls’ teams,” said Sallade.
“It was a good, competitive race. Everyone was racing hard, it was so encouraging. I loved how we were all screaming each other hoarse until the last person crossed the finish line. It was a really good day and a really good last cross country meet in high school.”
In Szeliga’s view, the girls’ success at sectional bodes well for the future.
“I think it builds; people are attracted,” said Szeliga. “When there is excitement around it, the kids want to do it. I am so proud of them that they are so good, it is so exciting. These girls have established the girls’ team basically.”
With the trio of Park, Whitman, and Prothero returning, the team has a strong core.
“Sophia went to Wilberforce through eighth grade and then she went to Rutgers Prep but then came back,” said Szeliga.
“We knew she was a great runner. When her mom emailed me that she was coming back I was so excited. She is very fast, she had a great season. Annie and Laura, my next two runners, improved so much from last year. They took minutes off their time. Annie was my most improved runner last year so she is just hitting her stride with running and feeling great. Everything was new to her. Running was new to a lot of these girls.”
But the graduation of Sallade will leave a void. “I am going to miss her so much, I can’t imagine the team without her,” said Szeliga.
Sallade, for her part, has gained a lot from running on the Wilberforce team.
“Cross country has taught me so many important lessons,” said Sallade.
“It taught me the value of putting in the hard work. It has given me confidence. It has given me really deep friendships because you are literally running miles alongside people and you have to talk to them every day.”