November 15, 2017

PHS Boys’ Cross Country Takes 2nd at Group Meet, Earning Chance to Defend Meet of Champions Title

GROUP LEADER: Princeton High boys’ cross country runner Will Hare heads to the finish line on the way to taking first in the Boys’ Varsity race at the Mercer County Championships in late October. Last Saturday, senior star and Penn-bound Hare took another title, placing first at the state Group 4 meet in Holmdel Park. Hare’s performance helped PHS take second in the team standings and qualify for the Meet of Champions on November 18 at Holmdel. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

In 2016, the Princeton High boys’ cross country team cruised to the title in the Group 4 state championship meet, easily outpointing runner-up Cherokee.

Last Saturday, PHS dropped to second at this year’s Group 4 meet as Kingsway raced to the title but head coach Jim Smirk had no qualms with the effort he got from his runners.

“We looked back at what we did last year and how it compared to this year and frankly, we were every bit as good a team this year as we were last year,” said Smirk, whose top five runners had a 16:30 average for the 5,000-meter course at Holmdel Park, nearly identical to the 16:29 average the Little Tigers produced last year.

“We ran into a team like Kingsway, they are well put together, they are well coached, they executed well, and they came out on top. Obviously we would have wanted to win but we had a pretty good day. There are some things to work on.”

Will Hare executed well for PHS, taking first individually in a time of 16:01. He was followed by junior Acasio Pinheiro in sixth place in 16:17.00 with junior Jackson McCarthy taking 27th in 16:42.00. Kingsway had a team score of 52 to take the title with Princeton coming in at 91.

“No question having Will win the title itself is a big motivator,” said Smirk.

“We had a breakout performance from Jackson McCarthy; he has been sitting in our seven spot. We gave him clear direction, don’t just be here, make something happen, and make something change.”

By taking second in the team standings at the Group meet, PHS qualified for the Meet of Champions on November 18 at Holmdel, giving it the opportunity to defend the title it won in 2016.

“We know what exists for us; we know the potential for better performances is a possibility,” said Smirk.

“The conversation post race wasn’t about the score; it was about how do we come back in seven days and give a better performance and what has to happen for that to occur.”

Smirk is confident that his runners will act on those words. “One of the really exciting things about that was everybody was able to identify a thing that they could do better,” said Smirk.

“That was great. As a coach, those are those moments you say ‘wow.’ That is what the goal has always been for our program — having our athletes take ownership over their success. It has a lot less to with what the score says on the sheet than what our goals are as individuals and how do we approach them.”

That starts at the top as Hare realizes that he faces a battle next Saturday.

“Will has put together a phenomenal season but he is a realist,” said Smirk. “He looked at the times from the other Groups and he saw that Devon Hart (the Group 2 champion from Point Pleasant Boro) ran 15:34. Will said I am going to be ready to be punched in the mouth next week and I have to respond to that. I haven’t had that all season and it is going to be a challenge. We will find out how good I am right now and how good I can be in the future.”

The PHS runners collectively are ready to get the most out of their potential.

“I am wildly impressed at the level of maturity, focus, and drive that these guys have,” said Smirk.

“We were playing with that idea last year at the end of the season. What you are seeing here is veterans who understand that excellence isn’t something that just happens. It requires a lot of hard work and if you want to do it at the highest level you have to bring it every single time.”

In Smirk’s view, the squad has what it takes to bring home another title.

“We know what we accomplished last year; I think there was bit of a wakeup call across the state from public schools,” said Smirk.

“I think it is exciting; you want be part of that conversation so it is how do you do that and how do you run fast. It is going to be a great Meet of Champions.”