When the Princeton High girls’ cross country team won the Varsity C race at the Shore Coaches Invitational earlier this month, it gave a potential preview of things to come.
“All season we have been talking about gearing up for some of the bigger meets,” said PHS head coach Jim Smirk.
“Everyone is talking about South (WW/P-S) but we think we can make a name for ourselves. The Shore race was an example of that; we want to race tough courses to show that we are tough runners.”
Last weekend, PHS learned that it has to be tougher as it took fourth in the Varsity A race at the Fall Classic at Thompson Park in Lincroft.
“Middletown South looked good, they have a lot of juniors and seniors,” said Smirk, referring to the second place team in the race won by Jackson Memorial. “We showed our youth yesterday. We need to be ready to risk more in the middle of the race.”
Smirk is looking for his top runner, sophomore Lou Miahle, to risk more at the head of the PHS pack.
“Lou ran really well at the Shore meet, she has taken a big step” said Smirk. “There are parts of her racing strategy that she needs to execute better so she can get to an even higher level and she knows that.”
Junior star Mary Sutton has steadily worked her way to a very high level. “Mary Sutton has talked about how the next two years are going to be her time,” said Smirk. “Over the summer, the team worked out together and took the initiative to get better and Mary was doing things on her own to improve. She has been patient in getting better and that goes hand in hand with her durability. She is not forcing the issue. At the end of last season she was a little impatient and she didn’t do as well as she would have hoped. We have talked about that.”
Former soccer player and 800-meter specialist, junior Paige Metzheiser has shown marked improvement at the longer distances.
“One of the great things about Paige is that we had Libby Bliss, the best 800 runner in PHS history, and I can say to Paige this is what she did in cross country,” said Smirk.
“Libby’s role was not to be our No. 1 but to be a solid third which is what we want from Paige. We want her to be within 15-20 seconds of the top two. We have had a couple of races where she has been right on Mary’s shoulder and they ran well together.”
The team’s top returning performer, junior Julie Bond, is racing well as she works to get up to full health and full speed.
“Julie Bond has been working through some inner leg injuries,” said Smirk. “We want to give her an opportunity to get back to full strength. We have been racing her in big races so she doesn’t get rusty. We want her to be right when it means the most.”
PHS has gained additional strength from the contribution it is getting from freshmen Maddie Whaley and Izzy Trenholm.
“It is no surprise that Maddie Whaley is doing well, not just because of her older sisters but because she is also a competitive swimmer,” said Smirk.
“Izzy has been a little bit of a surprise. She ran a 20:40 at a race and I asked if she had ever run before and she said she had done track and her best time in the mile was 7:40. She reminds me of Elyssa Gensib [former PHS star and current Penn runner], she comes to the mile marker with a smile on her face, she is happy being out there racing. She has a joy in getting better. It can get serious so that is good to see.”
Another pleasant surprise for the Little Tigers has been sophomore Emma Eikelberner.
“Last year, Emma ran a 19:25 in a 2.5 mile race; on Saturday, she ran a 21:17 in 3.1 mile race,” said Smirk. “She is phenomenally fast compared to last year. She was the quintessential person who had never run before and then came out to race. She worked through the winter and spring to turn herself into a varsity runner. She is blossoming into a varsity runner.”
In Smirk’s view, PHS can blossom into something special as it competes in the county meet on October 25 and then starts state competition with the sectionals in early November. “I think our depth is really going to come through,” said Smirk.
“Of our top 12 runners, the only senior is Belinda Liu. They are eager and focused. If we run the way we did at Shore Coaches, we can give South a run for its money at the counties. I think the 4-5-6-7 runners could make a difference in a meet like that where the top runners are going to be separated.”