November 24, 2021

PHS Boys’ Cross Country Takes 6th at MOC As Senior Nakaya Produces Stellar Performance

GUTTING IT OUT: Princeton High boys’ cross country runner Kento Nakaya heads to the finish line at the Mercer County championship meet in late October. Last Saturday, senior Nakaya helped PHS place sixth at the Meet of Champions at Holmdel Park. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Kento Nakaya’s third and final season on the Princeton High boys’ cross country team has gone better than he could have dreamed.

The PHS senior produced arguably the best race of his career at the perfect time as the Tigers placed sixth at the Meet of Champions at Holmdel Park on Saturday in a meet won by Union Catholic. The finish ties the third-best placing in PHS boys’ history. The 2016 team won MOC, and the 2017 team placed fourth, while the 1974 Tiger boys also placed sixth.

“As a PHS cross country team, we didn’t qualify for Meet of Champions for three years,” said Nakaya, who was the Little Tigers’ third finisher Saturday.

“I’ve never qualified to Meet of Champs in my life. I wasn’t expecting a lot from the meet. I was very surprised to be on the podium getting sixth place, and very happy to be there.”

Nakaya is one of two seniors in the PHS boys’ top seven. They will be without their other senior, Addison Motto, when the Tigers compete at the Nike Regionals in Bowdoin Park, N.Y., on November 27 as a springboard to a potential nationals spot next year. Nationals are not being run this season, and it will be the final race for Nakaya, who expects to return to his native Japan for college following graduation.

“I really want to thank my teammates for helping make my senior year great,” said Nakaya, who moved from Japan to Princeton in sixth grade. “I obviously had a lot of fun with working out with them and getting sixth at the Meet of Champs.”

The PHS girls’ squad also competed at the Meet of Champions. It’s the only time other than 1985 that both Princeton teams reached the Meet of Champions together. In 1985, it was Eva Klohnen in 25th individually who paced the PHS girls to a ninth-place team finish while Nathaniel McVey-Finney who took 41st to lead the Tiger boys to 12th place.

“It’s huge,” said PHS head coach Jim Smirk. “When I took over both programs in 2016, we talked about getting to the point where we were all on the same page. We could have elite individuals, we could be elite teams, but we wanted to be on the same page of what it meant to be successful. This was our first real test of that this year, and I thought we did an amazing job of it.”

Nakaya was one of four of Princeton’s top five finishers who went faster at Holmdel than they had the week before there in the Group 4 state championships. Junior Andrew Kenny took 23rd place in 16:14 over the 5,000-meter course while junior Marty Brophy was 71st in 16:52 and Nakaya was 75th in 16:56. Motto ran 17:05 for 93rd and junior Zachary Deng clocked 17:12 for 105th place to close out the scoring. Sophomore Max Dunlap was just behind in 17:16 for 109th and freshman Charles Howes came in 113th in 17:19 for an outstanding overall team performance.

“There’s definitely something about our mentality right there because it is the last meet of the season,” said Nakaya.

“We literally had to make it count. Dan DiLella, he was a captain last year, and he came to the meet to cheer on us. He was talking about it’s not about what you think, it’s about what you do. He said each of us have to do what we have to. That message was really important to me throughout the race.”

The PHS girls placed 16th in the meet won by Cherokee High as junior Robin Roth was their top finisher in 73rd in 20:12. Sophomore Kyleigh Tangen ran 20:19 for 80th and junior Lucy Kreipke took 85th in 20:25. Freshman Florica Eleches-Lipsitz was 97th in 20:44 and senior Ryan Vaughey closed out the scoring for the girls in 141st in 22:13. Junior Clare Johnson ran 22:19 for 144th.

“The guys and girls team came from very different backgrounds,” said Smirk.

“The girls’ team was way more experienced in championship racing, but not nearly as deep. It’s a smaller squad. The guys team was unproven but hungry with a lot of depth. They each found their own unique path to being successful to make it to the Meet of Champions. They really met that challenge of being on the same page with what our goals were and being true to themselves as teams. It was an impressive thing to be involved with as a coach.”

The PHS boys had raised their expectations significantly after finishing fifth at sectionals last year. They won the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional meet this year to qualify for the state Group meet opportunity, where they placed fourth and earned one of the eight wild card spots to the MOC. The legwork for that jump was made over the summer.

“We all pulled in the same direction at the same time,” said Smirk. “However much the commitment was to the summer training for individuals, it was the trust and belief in each other and the commitment to pushing each other to become better every day that was the other half of the equation.”

Nakaya was hindered in his training after last year’s cross country season. While an 800-meter time trial gave reason for optimism in the winter, Nakaya could not finish out the winter indoor track season or compete last spring after an adverse reaction following his COVID-19 vaccination. He did not return to running until July and then a foot injury set him back until the preseason. His return helped to spark the team.

“He became this anchor for us,” said Smirk. “It was like, if Kento is doing it, we can do it. He kind of set that tone for our team. I would argue he’s kind of our emotional core. He believed in our team and the work that we were doing. When he believed, everybody else did too. He’s been that kind of stoic, quiet leader that led by example and got better every week. I think that set the tone for us as a team.”

The Tigers gained confidence through the season. They were strong in Colonial Valley Conference meets and performed well at the Shore Coaches Invitational with a third-place finish in the B Division.

“Everyone is a lot faster from last year, and as a team we’re getting way better,” said Nakaya.

“Workouts that we have, let’s say we do a threshold workout, all those times are faster than last year. And because of that training we’ve been doing, that’s where we gained a lot of confidence as a team. Shore Coaches really boosted our confidence at Holmdel, where we ran Meet of Champs and groups. That meet was good for us to know where we are compared to other teams and know our current positions. That was great.”

Coming into the state tournament phase of the season, the PHS boys were anxious to prove that they were better than predicted in the preseason. The Tigers took each step in stride until they landed in sixth on Saturday.

“For sectionals, I was more nervous than excited because we’re trying to make it to groups and Meet of Champs eventually,” said Nakaya.

“But (Saturday) for Meet of Champs, I think there was more excitement compared to nervousness. I think all my teammates were excited for Meet of Champs because they’ve never run it. It was the first experience for every one of us to run the Meet of Champions so I think everyone was excited when we lined up. We ran a good race.”

The squad will be looking to return and place higher next year at the MOC, and they have aspirations to qualify for nationals. The Tiger girls also are looking to build on this season. They had a faster average at the MOC than they did at groups, and will return with major meet experience.

“We’re going to be a better team for it,” said Smirk. “We’re graduating one senior out of our top seven, our No. 5 girl, Ryan. That experience is going to pay off huge. We already started talking about the steps for next year. Some of the hunger that the boys had last year that paid off, I think you’re seeing it transfer over to the girls team with what’s our next step and how do we get better? How do we grow? How do we put ourselves in a better position next year? There were good lessons to learn. It was a tough race, definitely the toughest race we had all year. I thought they fought hard and I’m looking forward to them putting themselves in a position next year to be there again.”