While the Princeton High girls’ track team brings plenty of talent to the table, it is a dogged spirit that has been the main ingredient in a championship run.
“Some people say a good team has to have a swagger but we are not flashy,” said PHS head coach Jim Smirk.
“We talk a lot about ‘sisu,’ a Finnish work for stubborn determination. The girls have a self-confidence, a self-confidence that is earned.”
Last weekend, the Little Tigers displayed their self-confidence and will as they methodically out-dueled the competition on the way to the Central Jersey Group 3 sectional title.
PHS piled up a winning total of 88 points with Neptune second at 82 and Jackson Liberty third at 67.5.
The win marked the program’s first-ever Group 3 title and was its first sectional crown since PHS took the Central Jersey Group 2 title in 1989. It was a second breakthrough in two weeks for the Little Tigers as they had edged WW/P-S earlier this month to win the county championship.
Setting the pace for the Little Tigers in the sectional meet were its two senior superstars, Bryell Wheeler and Elyssa Gensib. Wheeler took first in the 100 (12.61) and the triple jump (a meet record of 38’6.50) with a third in the long jump (16’8-75) while Penn-bound Gensib was first in the 3,200 (10:53.90), second in the 1,600 (5:03.97), and fourth in the 800 (2:20.33).
Fellow seniors Maddie Lea and Jenna Cody also made big contributions with Lea taking second in both the triple jump (36‘2.50) and long jump (16’ 9) and Cody placing second in the 3,200 (11:05.40) and fourth in the 1,600 (5:09.68).
Wheeler displayed grit as well as talent in coming up big, fighting through a nagging hamstring to earn her titles.
“Bryell has gained a lot of confidence in her jumps,” said Smirk. “She has more confidence in her jumps than sprints which is amazing with her sprinting background. She ran the 200 in the prelims and said her hamstring didn’t feel right. We thought she had a better shot in the long jump so she dropped out of the 200. She barely made it to the final in the long jump and then ends up jumping third. I have to give a lot of credit to her performance on day two to coach [Ben] Samara. He got her focused and really helped her deal with the hamstring.”
Lea has displayed a special focus in crunch time. “Last year, Maddie developed into a star athlete.,” said Smirk.
“As the season goes on, she gets better little by little but doesn’t put anything great out there. But in sectionals and states, she is great. You put her in the moment and she gives you every inch and every ounce of effort.”
Distance star Gensib likewise demonstrated her flair for rising to the occasion in the big moment.
“Elyssa was incredible; when you tell most athletes that they are going against a national record holder in the 800 and the mile like Ajee Wilson of Neptune, they say ‘oh god’ but Elyssa said hey I am finally going against someone who will help me see what I can really do,” said Smirk.
“She made a mistake in the mile and was too aggressive in the 800. She was really great in the two-mile. What more can you ask of an athlete; she is great at preparing and is great at making race-time adjustments.”
Senior standout Amelia Whaley made a key adjustment as she rose to fifth place in the 3,200 (11:53.01) despite being placed in the slower second heat.
“I sat down with Amelia and talked about it,” said Smirk. “She was a real veteran; she said there was nothing we could do about it. I told her she has run a dozen workouts on the track by herself so she knows what is it like to run fast alone. We could see the group falling behind her so we knew she was running the right pace.”
Bouncing back from illness that kept her out of the county meet, Cody was up to speed as well.
“We were really happy to have Jenna this weekend,” said Smirk. “In the mile, she was nipped by HoVal girl [Sarah Chandler]. She made a little mistake; she was too passive in the middle of the race. We had a real aggressive race plan for the two-mile. We wanted her to do the first mile in 5:20. Gensib kept pressing and passed her at the right time while Cody kept battling and holding on.”
In producing the championship run, PHS has shown an ability to execute its plan.
“A lot of people say the county title is a fluke but we are showing that we are a consistently good team,” said Smirk. “We are the team making the least amount of mistakes.”
As the Little Tigers head into the state Group 3 championship meet this weekend at South Plainfield, Smirk will be looking for his athletes to dig even deeper.
“It is going to be incredible; Winslow is stacked and they look to be at a different level,” said Smirk.
“What I would like to see is for us to risk a little more. They have performed at their best but maybe not at their absolute best. It is less about points and more about doing their best.”
But no matter what the scoreboard says after Saturday, Smirk has drawn inspiration from how his athletes have performed all spring.
“I am so impressed by what they have gone through and how they approach everything, on and off the track, with a fervor for being great,” asserted Smirk. “It is fun to coach athletes like that.”