December 8, 2021

Tiny Wilberforce School Came Up Big This Fall As Girls’ Cross Country Won Non-Public Crown

EMERGING FORCE: Wilberforce School girls’ cross country runner Gwen Mersereau displays her form in a race this year. Freshman Mersereau emerged as the leader of the pack for Wilberforce this fall. She placed fourth individually in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Girls’ Non-Public B Group championship meet to help Wilberforce win the team title, the first in program history. She went on to take 94th in the Meet of Champions as the Wolverines took 18th in the team standings. (Photo provided by Lois Szeliga)

By Bill Alden

While the Wilberforce School only has about 80 students in its upper school, five stellar runners on its girls’ cross country team were able to make some big noise this fall.

After finishing sixth in the team standings at the Mercer County Championship meet in late October at Washington Crossing Park and then placing first at Bob Kiessling Invitational in Logan Township, the girls’ squad made school history by winning the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Non-Public B Group championship meet on November 13. The Wolverines went on to place 18th at the Meet of Champions a week later.

Wilberforce head coach Lois Szeliga sensed that her squad was on track for a big fall after its performance at the county meet as it held its own against some much larger schools.

“When you have one through five within two minutes of each other and that is what we had been doing, you really have a chance at winning these bigger meets,” said Szeliga.

“We have been finishing 1:30 apart. In the Group meet, it was around 2:01. That is really what you need.”

At the Group meet, freshman Gwen Mersereau led the way for the Wolverines, taking fourth individually, covering the 5,000-meter course at Holmdel Park in a time of 21:09. Classmate Adeline Edwards was right behind her in fifth with a time of 21:11. Junior Sophia Park took eighth in 21:35 while senior Annie Whitman came in 11th in 22:23 and senior Laura Prothero finished 18th in 23:10. In the team standings, Wilberforce had a winning score of 45, just six points better than runner-up and perennial power Villa Walsh.

“Villa Walsh was the clear favorite historically, I saw how our team kept improving every week and they knew they could do it,” said Szeliga.

“It was a very exciting race. Their No. 1 girl (freshman Ines Lemee) was ahead of our No. 1 (Mersereau) and 2 (Edwards) for most of the race. Gwen passed her in the last 100 meters and Adeline just beat her. Every single athlete in the one through five placed where they needed to place to win. It was each girl doing their part.”

The freshman one-two tandem of Mersereau and Edward proved to be a big part of Wilberforce’s success this fall.

“Gwen has done a lot of middle school and club track, she is a really intelligent racer,” said Szeliga.

“Even though she is a freshman, she is very experienced. That does help as far as some of these bigger competitions. She doesn’t get nervous and doesn’t get discouraged if someone is far ahead of her. She can just set her mind  and say I am going to catch up to them. She just has a very intelligent way of racing. Adeline was a surprise to me. She just came on over the season. In her first race she ran 26 minutes. By the end of the season, she is running in the low 20s. She worked really hard. It is so exciting, the first year of running. I was very happy for her, every race she got faster.”

Recovering from illness, Park flashed her speed down the stretch of the season.

“Sophia is very talented, she was sick for half the season and I felt badly for her,” said Szeliga.

“She came back and she just had such a positive attitude. She wanted to catch up with those lead girls and worked so hard. She was never discouraged. When it counted, she was there.”

Seniors Prothero and Whitman made things count in their final campaign for the Wolverines.

“Laura had a huge breakthrough year for her senior year,” said Szeliga.

“Annie is my captain and just embraces everything that I love about cross country. She was a gymnast so she very much understands pushing herself. She has never shied away from any of the work, anything you give her, she can just do it.”

Getting it done in the Group meet was a breakthrough moment for the squad.

“This is huge for our program, just being the first to win a state title and to put the program on the map like that,” said Szeliga.

“Annie and Laura were part of the first ever girls’ team at the school four years ago so to have it be that we win our first state title when they are seniors, I am so happy for them. You don’t know how many meets I go to where people say, ‘where is Wilberforce?’ It means a lot for people getting to know our school. For the school, the excitement it brings for the community, the parents and the people who are invested in the school is just so huge.”

At the Meet of Champions, the Wilberforce runners bettered their times on the Holmdel course from the Group meet to end the season in style.

“After the high of the state win, it’s a matter of being at that race and overcoming your nerves and improving upon what we did before,” said Szeliga.

“It is minus 30 seconds, minus 40 seconds. They were all so happy with their races. It was so exciting to see this happen this year, it was such an honor.”

On the boys’ side, junior Jeremy Sallade and sophomore Caleb Brox also ended up competing in the MOC. They punched their ticket to the meet as individual entrants after top 10 finishes at the Boys Non-Public B Meet with Sallade taking third in 17:21 and Brox coming in fifth in 17:35.

“I think that the girls winning really got them really determined,” said Szeliga. “It was really inspiring for the boys.”

The pair of Sallade and Brox inspired each other through the fall.

“Both Caleb and Jeremy have dropped so much time,” said Szeliga of Sallade who took 91st in the MOC in 17:03 while Brox came in 125th in 17:29.

“They have been running together since they have been little boys because they are very good friends in Princeton. I think this has been a dream of theirs to be in the MOC together. If I tell them to go on an 8-mile run, they go on a 9 mile run at 6:40 per mile. They can’t take it easy, they push each other and they love it.”

While the Wolverine boys’ squad took some lumps collectively, Szeliga believes there is a good foundation in place.

“We had a tough year, we had a lot of injuries so it was hard to have a championship team,” said Szeliga.

“I am proud of all of the boys, I think we are going to come back really strong. It was a great building year for next year.”

Szeliga is proud of the impact her runners have had in the close-knit Wilberforce community.

“There is a lot of excitement in the school with kids wanting to be a part of it,” said Szeliga.  “The kids have so much fun together, they are great kids.”