Jim Smirk has adopted a straightforward mantra this spring for his Princeton High girls’ track team.
“We have been telling the kids to do good things and good things will happen,” said PHS head coach Smirk.
Last Saturday at the Mercer County Championship meet, the Little Tigers did a lot of good things and something great happened as PHS won its first team title in the 34-year history of the outdoor meet. (The program did win the indoor county title in 1989.)
It was a photo finish as the Little Tigers accumulated 87 points, edging runner-up WW/P-S, who totaled 86.5 points.
Coming into the county meet at Steinert High, Smirk saw his squad as a title contender.
“We knew we had a pretty good team,” said Smirk. “We thought of ourselves as a top three team. Last year, we felt we didn’t have our team quite together. We have been talking about redefining what are team could be.”
Senior star Bryell Wheeler certainly had it together last Saturday, placing first in the 100 (12.32), long jump (17‘2.50) and triple jump (38‘1.25), and taking fourth in the 200 (26.35).
“Bryell has had nagging hamstring issues this spring,” said Smirk. “Coach [Ben] Samara and I sat down with her last week and said ‘here’s the deal, you recognize your talent but in the big meets you struggle. We think you are ready to do well but you have to believe it.’ She went out and competed.”
Wheeler’s competitive will has been reflected by her versatility. “She was always strong at the 100 and the long jump; every year she has grown by adding an event,” added Smirk.
“Over the winter, Ben started working on triple jump with her. It is a true technical event and we thought she was ready for that. The 100 and long jump are really power events.”
The Little Tigers also got a powerful contribution from their other jumping star Maddie Lea, who took third in the triple jump (35’7.50).
“Maddie Lea deserves a lot of credit,” said Smirk. “She and Bryell have been training partners all year; the two girls are both incredible jumpers. Maddie is a state level jumper in the triple jump and long jump.”
PHS boasts a high-level distance runner in senior Elyssa Gensib who won the 1,600 and took second in the 3,200. Gensib nipped WW/P-S star Caroline Kellner in the 1,600, clocking a time of 4:58.27, 1.31 ahead of the Pirate runner. In the 3,200, Gensib finished nearly 10 seconds behind Kellner, coming in at 10:56.24 with the WW/P-S standout posting a winning time of 10:46.73.
“Caroline wanted to be a four-time county champ in mile and she had never been under 5:00; we knew what she was going after,” said Smirk
“I said to Elyssa, ‘I have been running you in those 800s to help your speed, all you have to do is believe.’ In the the stretch between 1,000 and 1,400 meters, Caroline eats people up. Elyssa needed to get in middle and show the will to stay on her shoulder and have a shot in the last 300. It was one of the most exciting miles I have ever seen; both girls executed their race plans. Kellner had a blazing 800 but Elyssa had the guts to stay with her and use her speed at the end.”
Smirk had a feeling that Gensib would display some good finishing speed.
“She has been training that way,” explained Smirk.
“She been doing tempo work on the road where she is able to modulate. In the last four weeks, she has been doing tempo work in the track: it is mentally tougher. She was putting in the work for those last 40 meters.
Sophomore throwing star Michelle Bazile showed mental toughness as she won the shotput (36‘4.50) and took second in the discus (127’3).
“Coming off basketball, we were working to have her focus on discus with her height and strength,” said Smirk.
“Then she goes out and wins the shot put, ‘are you kidding me?’ but when we looked at her last 20 throws, she was the pinnacle of consistency.” said Smirk.
“We should have seen that she was ready to go 36 feet. The duel in the discus was really impressive. Every time Michelle would do a long throw, the girl from Hightstown [Aziza Ahmed] would go a little further. Michelle as a sophomore, stepped in there with complete confidence. She was really competing.”
As the meet drew to a conclusion, Smirk wasn’t sure whether PHS had done enough to win the competition.
“After the triple jump and discus, it was coming down to 4×400,” said Smirk.
“If we took fifth, we had a shot but we were in second heat. I wasn’t sure what we got but then Todd Smith [the WW/P-S coach] came up to me and congratulated me.”
Once it sunk in that PHS had won the title, Smirk felt a deep sense of pride in how far the program has come.
“It is huge; when I started years ago as head coach, I wrote down goals and I said is a county title even possible with Trenton, WW/P-S, WW/P-N, and Hopewell, which was a dynasty then.” said Smirk, whose squad will look for another title when it competes in the Central Jersey Group III sectional meet from May 25-26.
“It was great that we got it with a group of girls who have gone through a lot. The seniors lost a teammate when Helene [Cody] passed away. They are more battle-tested. Doing what they did over time is a testament to how much they have been able to grow.”