October 6, 2021

PHS Boys’ Cross Country Excels at Shore Coaches Meet As Kenny’s Major Improvement Making a Difference

VALUE ADDED: Princeton High boys’ cross country star Addison Motto heads to the finish line in a race last fall. Last Saturday, senior Motto placed 30th in the Boys Varsity B division in the New Balance Shore Coaches Invitational at Holmdel Park. Motto helped PHS finish third of 25 squads in the Boys Varsity B team standings. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Andrew Kenny didn’t need a race to know how much he had improved.

The Princeton High School junior runner knew from practice that his training since last fall had made him much faster.

“It was me sticking up with my teammates in the workouts,” said Kenny.

“Last year, I’d be straggling behind and I wouldn’t be with that top crew. With summer training and the start of the season, I’ve been with the top crew or exceeding the top crew in training.”

Kenny was out front again as the third finisher overall in the Boys Varsity B race at the New Balance Shore Coaches Invitational at Holmdel Park on Saturday. Kenny covered the famed 5-kilometer course in a personal record of 16:28 to lead the Tiger boys team to third of 25 squads in the division’s team standings.

“I was really hurting through the first mile,” said Kenny. “Those roller coasters kill you and there’s not much traction with your spikes. I cruised through the next half mile to the one-and-a-half mile mark. I worked the hill decent. I know I’m a good downhill runner. Once I got to The Bowl, I put on the gas and just went.”

Kenny and the Tigers didn’t get to compete in the big invitationals last year due to a COVID-19 pandemic adjusted schedule, but he ran 18:30 as a freshman at Shore Coaches and last year clocked a 18:40 at a CVC dual meet around the same time. He’s been making up for lost time.

“He was a rookie and COVID hit,” explained PHS head coach Jim Smirk.

“He did some good stuff last year. All these guys, if they didn’t come into running from some other background, they’re almost two years short of experience. They basically lost their spring track, and had an abbreviated cross country and winter.”

Smirk saw his girls’ team also do well at Shore Coaches meet. Junior Lucy Kreipke led a PHS team that also graduated and had to replace its top runner from a year ago. Kreipke was 11th overall in 20:22 as the Tiger girls placed second in the Girls B Division. Returning top-seven PHS runners sophomore Kyleigh Tangen and junior Robin Roth combined with senior Ryan Vaughey and a trio of freshmen — Sabine Ristad, Cecile Gibb, and Florica Eleches-Lipsitz — for a promising showing.

Tangen placed 21st in 20:52 while Roth took 25th in 21:13, Vaughey placed 40th in 21:52, Ristad finished 42nd in 21:58, Gibb took 43rd in 22:06, and Eleches-Lipsitz was 44th in 22:08.

“Ryan is not new,” said Smirk. “She ran into the injury bug right at the start of her career. She’s finally healthy and running well. She’s starting to turn into that consistent back end runner for us. She’s closing the door for us. And our three rookies — Sabine, Ceci, and Rica — were all very close at the finish. That’s a great thing or us to see with our rookies — they’re working together and running hard. They’re starting to find out what it means to be a varsity runner and fight for position.”

On the boys’ side, a tight pack followed Kenny to the finish. Junior Zachary Deng and senior Addison Motto posted the same 17:24 finish times as they placed 29th and 30th, respectively. Junior Charles Howes and junior Marty Brophy rounded out the top five in 17:34 and 17:36, respectively, as they came in 36th and 39th. Akshay Patel was just behind in 17:47 and John Zammit was the seventh finisher for PHS in 111th.

Coming into the meet, Tigers drew motivation from a pre-race online article that listed them as a bubble team, just outside the top 20 in the state.

“It absolutely is,” said Kenny. “We saw we were a bubble team. We absolutely did not think we’re a bubble team.”

Last Saturday was a chance to show how far they have come since running as a young team last year. Now a year older and stronger, they are poised to make a move in the state.

“I felt like we belonged there,” said Smirk. “And we proved it this weekend. There’s room to grow. I think there’s a lot of opportunity. They’re starting to realize they have a chance to do something that two years ago didn’t seem like a reality.”

Kenny notes that there is no mystery to his development over the last year. When the seasons were cut short and modified, it hurt his personal motivation.

“The last year I ran maybe one or two miles a day and sometimes I just wouldn’t run for weeks on end,” said Kenny. “This year, I talked with Smirk and we set up a plan. It was about 40 miles a week which is a lot. I kept to that plan and went into the season.”

Kenny’s motivation came back with a more regular schedule in spring track and he stayed with it through the offseason. He pushed himself harder than ever to be prepared for this fall.

“The real reason why I’m running so much better is because of all the work I put in over the summer,” said Kenny.

“With spring track, I was starting to get back in the swing of things. I didn’t run much over COVID. It was like a steady increase in my strength. I kept that momentum through a strong summer training session.”

It paid off in practice with keeping up with the pack and running ahead of it, and in races he quickly saw he’d have to reset his standards.

“Towards the beginning of the season, before we had any races, my goal was to go sub 17:00 by the end of the season and build up and maybe get 16:45 toward the end of the season,” said Kenny.

“My first race, when I ran 16:58, I immediately changed that to go 16:30. As I ran faster, my goals have been faster and faster. Now my goal is to break 16:00, hopefully at Thompson.”

The Tigers will compete in the Fall Classic at Thompson Park on October 9 — site of the sectionals as well later in the year – as they look to continue their momentum. The Shore Coaches meet has become an early mid-season barometer for coaches and PHS feels better about its team goals after its third-place finish at Holmdel.

“I think it gives us a lot of motivation for sectionals and groups,” said Kenny. “We reassured ourselves. Our original goal was to make it to Meet of Champions. We know it’s definitely a possibility.”

Kenny is settling into his new role as a leader for the PHS team. He is trying to take more risks in practice and meets to push his limits. He still has another year of high school running, but has come far since his middle school days when his mother put him into cross country in sixth grade.

“It’s kind of surreal,” said Kenny. “I never thought I’d be anywhere near where I am senior year, let alone junior year.”

The team has been a driving force for him throughout his career. It has kept him going through the pandemic and got him excited about this season’s potential.

“I like the team,” said Kenny. “I don’t like running. I really do like the team, just the relationships and winning is fun.”

There is a chance for more fun as PHS looks ahead. The Tigers put themselves in position to contend for Mercer County and Central Jersey Group 4 titles with their solid start. PHS will have to deal with an always difficult WW/P-North team when they hit the county meet.

“I think we have a really strong chance of winning it,” said Kenny.

“We have to focus on getting all our runners in front of North’s third guy. That’s what we have to worry about. I don’t think anyone else in the county really stands a chance.”

The girls will have their own challenge in the county meet, competing against a strong Robbinsville team.

The sectionals will be a test for both squads, and the Shore Coaches meet gave them confidence to build on their fast start, particularly Kenny who is enjoying a breakthrough season.

“Kenny is using his particular talents right now,” said Smirk. “Those other guys are starting to find how they find success individually and they know that’s important for us to have success as a team. Andrew is doing well, and everybody else is adding to the pieces of the puzzle for themselves.”