November 8, 2017

With Donahue Producing Special Effort, PHS Boys’ Cross Country Wins Sectional

RETURN ENGAGEMENT: Members of the Princeton High boys’ cross county team take off at the start of the Mercer County Championships at Thompson Park in Jamesburg on October 20 on the way to winning the title. Last Saturday, PHS returned to Thompson Park and won another championship as it placed first in the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional for the second straight year. The Little Tigers are next in action when they compete in the state Group 4 meet on November 11 at Holmdel. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Although Jackson Donahue ran well at Thompson Park in Jamesburg as the Princeton High boys’ cross county team placed first at the Mercer County Championships in late October, he knew he had more to give.

“I was looking at my times the other day and I realized that I haven’t PR’d since last season,” said senior Donahue, who took 18th at the county meet with a time of 16:47.81 over the 5,000-meter course.

“I was like this is the last race at a fast course because the remaining races are all at Holmdel so I have got to get a fast time and get the team a win.”

Returning to Thompson Park last Saturday for the Central Jersey Group 4 sectionals, Donahue produced a very fast time, clocking 16:07.20 in taking 11th. With PHS senior Will Hare placing first in 15:39.00 to lead the way, the Little Tigers won the team title by a razor thin margin, compiling a score of 67, one point better than runner-up WW/P-South. As a result, PHS booked a spot in the state Group 4 meet on November 11 at Holmdel where it will go for another title repeat.

“The training is definitely paying off; it all came together in this race,” said Donahue, reflecting on the program’s second straight sectional title.

“We really upped our training for the last two weeks and I guess it worked out.”

Donahue led a pack of his fellow seniors as classmates Alex Ackerman took 22nd, Nick Delaney placed 43rd, and Will Ratner finished 49th while juniors Acasio Pinheiro placed 16th and Tucker Zullo came in 17th.

“Ackerman, Nick, and I were sort of our safety valves in our 4-5-6-7 spots last year,” said Donahue.

“Alex Roth, Will, and Acasio took care of the scoring. Now it is down to us to take care of the scoring. We have guys like Tucker Zullo and Will Ratner who can act as safety valves for us.”

In Donahue’s view, the pack mentality is paying dividends for the Little Tigers.

“The big reason why we can all race well in different races is because we trust each other so much,” said Donahue.

“If you are up there then you have faith that the guys behind you have it locked down as well so there is no pressure on any of us.”

The example set by last year’s senior star Alex Roth and Hare has helped Donahue race better this fall.

“They are some of my best friends and great runners,” said Donahue. “I have always looked up to Roth as a role model. I learned a lot from him, he just did all of the little things right all the time. I have really taken that as a model for my own training.”

PHS head coach Jim Smirk liked the way his runners played off each other in the race.

“Jackson Donahue and Nick Delaney have locked in with Tucker Zullo and Alex Ackerman and really created a core there,” said Smirk.

“If all four of us run great at the same time, that is perfect but this is what we really need. Jackson had a huge day and Tucker Zullo had a huge PR. Ackerman had about the same kind of day he had at counties although he wasn’t feeling real well. It wasn’t his day but because we had developed that sense of identity, self, and team that is not what ended up being the thing. It was the fact that the other guys were able to pick up the race.”

Senior star and Penn-bound Hare has developed into something special.

“Will has decided that his legacy is going to be it is not enough just to be fast but he has got to be at the top and he has to be a champion,” said Smirk.

“That is how he is racing, that is how he is winning. He is not flashy, he is not that guy you watch for him and go oh man look how smooth he is. He is that one that you look at and say that kid is powerful, look at how he races, look at the intensity, the drive, the focus. That is what he is bringing to our team.”

Hare’s drive is rubbing off on his teammates. “We want that legacy to be left and it is already playing out in terms of the varsity, but now we are starting to see that with our younger kids as well,” added Smirk.

With PHS having won the sectional crown, the state Group 4 title, and the Meet of Champions last fall, Smirk believes that the grit his team displayed on Saturday bodes well for adding to that legacy.

“They raced tough; that is what we want to do,” said Smirk. “We want to force ourselves to be the best we can be and I think we saw that today out of these guys for now. In a week we will reestablish that and find a deeper level of competition. Winning one like this validates the idea that we can be tough and win. We will come back next week and see if we can test that again.”

Donahue, for his part, believes that PHS has what it takes to keep winning.

“We are going to start taking down our mileage in training, trying to peak for groups and the meet of champs,” said Donahue.

“We think we can win every race. We showed today we have the capability even when we some of our guys don’t have the races that they want to. We always have guys stepping up.”