November 13, 2019

Fueled by Apples, Collective Desire to Improve, PHS Girls’ Cross Country Takes 3rd at Sectional

FAST COMPANY: Members of the Princeton High girls’ cross country team take off at the start of the Mercer County Championships last month. This past Saturday, PHS took third in the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional meet. As a result of making the top five, the Tigers qualified to compete in the state Group 4 meet this Saturday. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Three apples a day keeps the Princeton High girls’ cross country season going.

“We’ve all been eating apples all year,” said PHS veteran stalwart Lizzy Hare with a laugh. “That’s the key.”

Last Saturday at the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional at Thompson Park in Jamesburg, Hare, the lone senior in the Tiger top seven, posted a personal record of 20:37 over the 5,000-meter course to come in fourth out PHS’s scoring five runners and help the squad place third in the meet.

“I think it’s very inspiring,” said Hare. “It’s really pushing us. We want to hopefully make it to Meet of Champs this year. It’s a big goal. We’ll have another hard week of training to hopefully make it out next week.”

The Tigers will compete in the Group 4 state championship at Holmdel Park on Saturday after their top-five finish at sectionals. They did not earn a berth in groups last year.

“We kind of missed last year, but we’re back on track,” said Hare. “Last year we did not have enough apples. That situation was fixed.”

Leading the way for the Tigers in the sectional meet was junior Charlotte Gilmore, who placed fifth in 19:28. Freshmen Lucy Kreipke and Robin Roth were eighth and 15th in 19:34 and 19:50, respectively, with Hare taking 40th and junior Yana Medvedeva coming in 41st at the same time of 20:37. Junior Sofia Dacruz was 52nd in 21:16 and junior Emma Lips took 59th in 21:28.

In the team standings, the Tigers scored 109 points, eight points behind second-place Hunterdon Central. South Brunswick won with 65 points. PHS topped fourth-place WW/P-South by 17 points.

PHS’s top-three finish had Hare out picking up more apples for the week ahead.

“I think they’re quite delicious any day,” said Hare. “We’re all very excited after we had good races at sectionals and made it to groups. I think the apples would have tasted good even if they were bad apples.”

Apples were part of a new attitude for the Little Tigers. They trained harder, lived healthier, invested themselves more, and the results were better.

“Honestly, I think the team really changed,” said Hare. “We’re almost like a different team this year. Almost everyone is the same person, but we’ve come together as a group and we decided we wanted to work hard and do our best. I think that’s something we didn’t have last year. We worked hard, but it wasn’t working. This year we put the pieces together to work hard.”

Advancing to the group meet was especially meaningful to Hare, who missed the end of last year. She wasn’t back to full strength until part way through the indoor track season last year.

“Last year wasn’t my best season,” said Hare. “I wasn’t really healthy and I couldn’t race to my best. This is my senior year and it made me want to train well and race well. It helped that my teammates are in the same mindset as me even though they’re not seniors.”

There are four juniors who learned from last year’s experience, and PHS added Kreipke and Roth, who have enjoyed tremendous freshman years. The duo has helped to replace the graduated Siena Moran, and Hare came back to boost the top seven.

“We ran on average 1:25 faster than last year,” said PHS head coach Jim Smirk of sectionals. “That’s incredible. It speaks to their hard work, their commitment to what they’ve done since last year, and not being satisfied that we didn’t get out for the first time for my girls team. That stuck in our craw a little bit. That focused them for the year. All that hard work paid off.”

Hare has enjoyed seeing the program return to its successful ways in her final year. The senior has tried to be a leader for the team.

It’s been interesting,” said Hare, “but the juniors – Charlotte, Emma, Yana and Sofia – they’ve stepped up this year and took on leadership roles on the team to help and mentor the freshmen, Lucy and Robin.”

Kreipke produced another strong showing at sectionals for a top-10 finish while Roth had a breakout race for 15th. Roth ran almost 50 seconds better than any previous race. Medvedeva recovered from a worrisome ankle injury just to be able to compete, and Hare helped the season continue with her best race of the year.

“In Lizzy’s sophomore year she was top seven,” said Smirk. “Last year she missed the majority of the year because of some health challenges. It’s impressive what she’s done this year. She has taken every moment of her senior year and taken advantage of it. It’s pretty awesome.”

Hare came out for the team as a freshman, just as her older brother Will was starting to make a name for himself in cross country before eventually continuing on in college.

“I think that definitely influenced me a bit to see my brother have success on the team,” recalled Hare.

“It was mostly the friendships that I saw him making, rather than the success, that made me want to run. Most of his success was his junior and senior year, and I was a freshman when he was a junior. So it was much more the friends.”

The PHS boys runners, for their part, continue to try to rebuild from the graduation of Will Hare and his class two years ago. The Tigers placed eight in the sectional as their season came to an end. Junior Jacob Bornstein was 24th in 16:52 and senior Nick Trenholm was 31st in 16:59 to pace the PHS boys. Sophomore Kento Nakaya had a breakout race for 40th in 17:13.

“We’ve had to scratch our way and fight our way through the successes we’ve had,” said Smirk.

“Today wasn’t our day for it. It was a really good learning experience for our underclassmen. Looking forward, we have a lot of really good building blocks. Jacob as our No. 1 returner, he’s the kind of guy who looks like he’ll continue to improve. Our goal is for him is to be good enough to qualify out as an individual and on top of that have a team that’s strong enough to support him. It’s been a while since we missed. You have to have those every once in a while to really understand what it takes to be successful. We’ll keep doing that work and get ready for next year.”

The girls’ squad came back plenty motivated this year and were able to advance from sectionals, though they did have to come back from a hiccup two weeks ago. The team was in the midst of a promising season when they took fourth at the Mercer County Championships. The result was a disappointment, but the Tigers rebounded strongly.

“I think we had some workouts that made us feel a little more confident between counties and sectionals,” said Hare.

“They pushed us to run together more and work off each other and with each other more. I think we were a little nervous going into sectionals after counties, but we felt prepared. We felt if we don’t race well today, it’s not the end of the world. We took a little pressure off ourselves that we had in counties, and that made us have a better race and perform our best.”

Hare improved 30 seconds over any other top-level race she had this year. She and Medvedeva were close enough that they could have held hands crossing the finish line, said Smirk.

“I was very happy with my race today,” said Hare. “I ran with Yana. We really worked together well. During parts when I was struggling, she pushed me and was there to help me keep going. And when she was struggling, I was there for her. Running with a teammate really helped. That’s something we missed at counties.”

PHS made goal posters for the season and one of them was to get to groups. But bigger than that is getting to Meet of Champions. The top two finishers at groups, plus the next eight fastest teams from all groups will qualify.

“We’re not done yet,” said Smirk. “We can race better. We know we can race better. Our six-seven have both been as high as 3 at one point. We know that they’re that level of talent and doing work to get back there. I think if we can run as a pack, and I think we can get our one-to-five spread down under 30 seconds at Holmdel, we can take a run at making Meet of Champions.”

Being a qualifier out of the sectional meet is a confidence builder; the Tigers had to run well to place third. They finished ahead of WW/P South which placed ahead of them at counties.

“Consistently Group 4 Central Jersey is a minefield,” said Smirk. “It’s incredibly competitive. You make a little mistake and you can give up 30 spots in a blink. If you watch the other races today, the top 15-20 is really competitive and then it gets strung out time-wise with five-second and 10-second gaps. Group 4, the biggest time gap between runners came between one-five. Then the next 50 come flying through the chute. Little mistakes hurt you bad. You can’t really make a mistake and survive it. You have to run mistake-free and be aggressive, and that’s what we’re going to try to do at groups. If we do that well, I think we’ll be in position to advance to the next week.”

The Tigers understand the challenge ahead and they are still hungry to achieve more after knocking off one goal.

“I think the next step is to have a smaller one-five spread, even one-seven spread,” said Hare. “We need to run more as a group next week. Everyone was working off each other, but we can be closer. If we pull Sofia and Emma up with me and Yana, and even Robin up with Lucy and Charlotte, that would give us a good chance.”

A good chance to advance, and a reason to get more apples for the next step. Hare regularly consumes 15 apples in a week.

“It might seem excessive but they’re quite tasty,” said Hare. “There’s nothing like a good apple after a race.”

Especially after a personal record and accomplishing a team goal of a group berth.