Motto Steps Up with Personal Best Performance As PHS Boys’ Cross Country Wins Sectional Title
ADDING UP TO A TITLE: Princeton High boys’ cross country star Addison Motto heads to the finish line at the Central Jersey Group 4 championship Saturday at Thompson Park. Senior Motto placed 12th individually to help PHS win the team title at the meet as it had a score of 82 to edge runner-up Manalapan by two points. The Tigers are next in action when they compete in the Group 4 state championship meet at Holmdel Park on November 13. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Justin Feil
Addison Motto was a bit taken aback after helping the Princeton High boys’ cross country team edge Manalapan for the Central Jersey Group 4 championship last Saturday at Thompson Park.
“It feels amazing,” said PHS senior Motto. “I don’t think anyone on our team thought we’d make it this far and win sectionals at the beginning of the year. It’s really shocking. It feels great.”
The win came two weeks after a heartbreaking one-point loss to WW/P-North for the Mercer County championship meet. Had any of Princeton’s top five finishers in that race moved up one spot, the Tigers would have won. They grasped the importance of each point, and pulled out an 82-84 win over Manalapan for the sectional title.
“We knew that we had a shot,” said Motto. “We knew that we could beat Manalapan. We knew we could put five guys in before their fifth guy. We knew we’d have to run as a team, not just individually, which we were able to execute definitely. We knew people would have to step up and have some of their best races of the season. The guys stepped up, so that was great.”
PHS used a tight pack to take the title even without a runner in the top 10 individually. Junior Andrew Kenny placed 11th individually in 16:25 over the 5,000-meter course, Motto took 12th in a personal-record 16:32, junior Marty Brophy finished 16th in 16:44 and junior Zachary Deng came in 17th in 16:47. When senior Kento Nakaya surged in with a big move over the final quarter-mile to finish 26th in 17:03, it sealed the Tigers’ win. Sophomore Max Dunlap was 35th in 17:15 while junior Charles Howes took 42nd in 17:30.
“We really looked into that county race,” said Motto. “We all identified what we did wrong. We all realized we made a lot of mistakes. We ran well as a team, our times were good, but none of us won the races we needed to win within the race to put us ahead of West Windsor North. Sectionals was the polar opposite of that. Every single individual that raced, we pulled ahead. Me and Andrew each passed a Manalapan kid at the end, Kento passed about 10 kids at the end of the race. Everyone was passing kids instead of getting passed, and not running for a great time but running to have a great race.”
By virtue of their showing last Saturday, the Tigers advance to the Group 4 state championship meet which will be held at Holmdel Park on November 13. The top two group teams plus the next fastest eight wild card teams will advance to the Meet of Champions. PHS last reached the MOC in 2018, after finishing second at sectionals. They last won the sectional crown in 2017, a year before Motto or anyone on this year’s team was even in high school.
“This is a group of guys that is a little unproven,” said PHS head coach Jim Smirk.
“None of these guys have raced in the group championship before. I think it was a big deal. It’s really a
testament to them buying into the idea that cross country is really a team sport and everyone needs to contribute at their highest level if you want to be successful, and that’s what we did today.”
Smirk saw significant growth from his team in the way that they raced compared to at counties. The county runner-up finish was painful, but it taught a valuable lesson that none of the PHS runners forgot. It served as motivation for them at sectionals.
“The term we used for what happened at counties was we were disorganized,” said Smirk.
“We didn’t quite take responsibility for racing well. We all kind of looked around to see who was going to take charge. Today was the opposite. Right from the gun, everybody not only knew their role, but knew how to support each other during the race and we did exactly that.”
The Princeton girls placed third in the loaded CJ 4 to advance to the Group 4 state meet as well. The defending champion Tigers scored 97 points. Middletown South won with 72 points, and Montgomery was second with 88. South Brunswick was fourth with 111 points, and Freehold Township scored 142 for fifth.
“Five of the top 20 teams in the state are in our section,” said Smirk. “Hillsborough was a bubble team all season. The depth of that Central Jersey Group 4 girls was insane. I’m proud of my girls.”
Junior Robin Roth placed fifth in 19:22, sophomore Kyleigh Tangen took 11th in 19:45, freshman Florica Eleches-Lipsitz ran to 17th in 20:07, junior Lucy Kreipke placed 28th in 20:30 and senior Ryan Vaughey rounded out their scoring in 36th in 21:04. Freshman Cecile Gibb finished 48th while junior Clare Johnson took 68th. PHS is looking for a better overall race at groups.
“To have some miscues and still come in third with the depth of this field speaks tremendously of how talented and hardworking our girls are,” said Smirk.
“It happens sometimes when you take risks – they don’t always work out. It was one of those days for us, but even with that said, we had teammates who took care of each other and made sure they gave their best efforts to put us in the right position. We advance to next week and we’re looking for a better week. We’ll make some adjustments and see if we can do on the girls side what we’re trying to do on the guys side which is get to the Meet of Champions.”
The PHS teams will take on the famed Holmdel Park course. The boys were third there in the Varsity B Division at the Shore Coaches Invitational back on October 2.
“We have our focus and we have a lot of work to do this week just to recover for this race, but we thought about it and we’re definitely looking to make it out of groups to Meet of Champs,” said Motto.
“We haven’t made it to Meet of Champs since my freshman year. We’re definitely looking to get there again. It’s looking pretty good that we could make it again. This is the first time for our entire roster running in groups. I don’t think we ran in groups when I was a sophomore.”
Motto and the Tigers have been using their growing experience each race. He has moved up each season for PHS to become a bigger part of the team. He and Nakaya are the lone seniors in the top five for the boys.
“Addison has been an incredible leader for us all year,” said Smirk.
“Talk about a guy who has been spending his entire season figuring out cross country, he was one of these guys that came in as a freshman and we knew he was pretty talented. Because you never were getting to that next level when he was young, this higher level racing is new to him so he’s having to figure it out. Today he did a great job with it.”
Motto is proud of the progress he has made during his PHS career.
“Especially these last two years, and these four years, I’ve grown so much as a person and a runner and a leader,” said Motto.
“We do so many leadership workshops. You don’t only improve as a runner, but as a teammate and as a speaker, you improve your communication. It’s immeasurable how much I’ve grown from this sport and being a part of the team.”
PHS has jumped from eighth in sectionals his sophomore year to fifth last year to winning it this season. The leap from last year, Motto attributes to the offseason work that the Tigers put in.
“We all held each other accountable over the summer,” said Motto.
“We all did the work. We all put in a lot of time. We were all super, super dedicated to this team. We all are trying our best to contribute to its success.”
The payoff came in the sectional title as the Tigers made huge improvements over last year to capture the crown and put together a special season for the seniors.
“I think we’re performing way better than expected,” said Motto.
“Last year I think our team average was 17:26 at sectionals. This year it was 16:42. It was like a 45-second decrease in team average which is sort of unprecedented. Our fastest guy last year wouldn’t be in the top five this year.”
PHS’s runners were largely unknown coming into this season. They took major leaps to move into position to contend for the county and sectional championships. The Tigers made a name for themselves with the CJ 4 title and will look to extend their season at the group meet.
“They have a little bit to prove for themselves,” said Smirk. “As far as making the Meet of Champions, we’re going to put our best race out there and time-wise, I think we’re in a good position. We’ll see if we can punch our ticket there.”