PHS Boys’ Cross Country Takes 1st at County Meet As Senior Howes Plays a Critical Role in Victory
LEADERS OF THE PACK: Members of the Princeton High boys’ cross country team get started at the Mercer County Cross County Championships last Thursday at Thompson Park. Pictured, from left, are Atticus Ayres, Max Dunlap, Zach Deng (with sunglasses), Charles Howes, and Marty Brophy. The Tigers ended up taking first place in the team standings at the meet, scoring 54 points for the victory with runner-up West Windsor-Plainsboro North, which edged PHS by a point for the title last year, taking second with 82 points. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Justin Feil
Charlie Howes made big strides over the past year, improvements that helped the Princeton High boys’ cross country team earn the Mercer County Championship last week.
Howes was one of three seniors, along with Marty Brophy and Zach Deng, to lead the way for the Tigers, who put four finishers in the top 10 on their way to scoring 54 points for the victory Thursday at Thompson Park. Runner-up West Windsor-Plainsboro North, which edged PHS by a point for the title last year, was second with 82 points. The Lawrenceville School was third with 146 points.
“It just feels really awesome,” said Howes, who placed fifth with a time of 16:47 over the 5,000-meter course. “Coming into this season we knew we’d be without our best guy from last year due to injury, but we knew we would still have a strong team. Marty has been the lead guy all season and I’ve been able to work off him so well. I feel like the chemistry we’ve all been able to develop has helped lead us to greater things. We’ve been dealing with a lot of injuries and for all of us to come together, race really well and win the county title means a lot.”
Howes was Princeton’s second finisher. Brophy took fourth place in 16:26. Howes came in 21 seconds later in fifth, barely a second and a half ahead of WW-P North’s top finisher. Deng broke 17:00 for eighth place in 16:59, and Max Dunlap took 10th in 17:08. Felix Farrugia’s strong second half of the race enabled him to move up to finish 27th in 18:00 to seal the victory. Braedyn Capone was 33rd and Atticus Ayres was 53rd to round out the team.
“The county is good, there’s a lot of talent in our county every year,” said PHS head coach Jim Smirk. “Whenever you get the opportunity to have a win at counties, it’s a big deal. We were a little nervous going in considering what had happened last year, losing to North by a point. North is young team. Coach (Brian) Gould has them well put together. They execute well. You know you’re getting a race from them. We had some question marks we had to solve, and I think we solved them. We put together the day we were looking for. I’m thrilled with them. I think they really took advantage of the opportunity given to them and proved that they’re championship level.”
The PHS girls placed fifth with 126 points, only six points out of third place. The Wilberforce School won the girls title with a score of 88. The Tigers were led by Lucy Kreipke in sixth in 19:56 in an encouraging performance at Thompson Park.
“She didn’t like the course very much and had had some struggles there in the past,” said Smirk. “Last year, when she didn’t have a great race there, and we started working on that course the next day about what was needed to find the right combination of tactics and toughness to be successful there. She’s put all the work in, there’s no question, and it’s showing. I was thrilled with her performance.”
Robin Roth took ninth in 20:15 as she returned from illness, and Kyleigh Tangen was 16th in 20:31 to show her experience and round out their top 20 finishers. Avery Ellen Bahr was 39th and Tessa Thai edged teammate Clare Johnson for 65th.
“We’re looking for our 5-6-7 runners to step up and see who has the hot hand come sectionals,” said Smirk. “We’re not quite as tight as we’ve been in the past 1-5, but I think we’re doing some really good things moving forward.”
The PHS girls and boys will return to Thompson Park for the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional race this Saturday. The PHS girls will have stiff competition to get out while the Tiger boys are among the sectional favorites and gained confidence from the county win.
“We’re jelling really well,” said Smirk of the boys. “We’re making good decisions. We’re starting to get into that bit of a group thing where you kind of know what your teammate will do at any given second. The next step for us is understanding that every time we go to that next type championship meet, the competition is stiffer and it’s going to take more depth and risk-taking to be in the right spot. That’s where we want to be and I think we’re in the right spot for that for sure. Short of getting everybody healthy and back, I’m not sure we could do a whole lot more to continue to grow and challenges ourselves to put out good races.”
The PHS boys won despite not having last year’s top finisher, Andrew Kenny, who has been sidelined this fall by injury. The Tigers expect Kenny to return for winter and spring track, and are holding out hope that he could make a late return to the cross country team. Without him, PHS has seen others step up.
“Over the summer I put in a lot more work compared to last year,” said Howes. “I started summer training early July. I got a good solid 10-12 weeks of training in before the season started. I peaked at like 60 miles a week. I think my drive and dedication and focus has led me to where I am today.”
Howes has seen some of the more remarkable jumps among the team. He has gone from double-digit finishes in nearly every major meet last year to top-five finishes in every meet except one so far. He placed 21st at counties a year ago. The improvements are directly correlated to his offseason work.
“I expected to do a lot better than I did last year,” said Howes. “Going into my first race, I didn’t know what I was capable of. I was doing what I was supposed to every day and hoping it would lead me to where I wanted to go. When I ran 16:30 the first race, even I was like, I didn’t think I could do this. And then really everything after that has been about being the best I can to help my team do well and create a good environment for everyone.”
PHS has seen improvements across the board from its contributing runners. They have helped the Tigers move to the top of the county and gear up for further championship achievements. PHS’s senior trio has led the way at the top of the lineup, as they did at counties. And Dunlap came through with a big performance just behind them Thursday.
“Our top 3, they’ve been there all year working together,” said Smirk. “It was nice to see Marty and Charlie and Zach really set the tone for us. Max has been kind of working his way back. He had a rough spring last year. It just took him a long time to get his feet under him and get his confidence back. He really put it all together for that No. 4 spot. That was a pretty impressive effort on his part in terms of the competitive field. He had gone head to head with a lot of those guys all season and was struggling to make it happen, and he really showed up. He didn’t wait. The gun went off and he knew exactly what his job was and how to execute it. He showed that next level veteran focus and performance. We’re thrilled with him.”
Behind Dunlap were the real questions. PHS’s No. 5 runner this season, Cole Rose, is out with an injury, and the Tigers needed their next group to fill in to compete. Farrugia was nursing his own injury, but came through at counties.
“We had a little question mark on the backside there,” said Smirk. “The opening 1,500 meters was a little shaky because Felix was something like 58th, which is not the position you want your No. 5 to be at counties. But he started to trust his stuff a little more and rallied our 6 and 7 guys, Braedyn and Atticus, to make some moves. By the time he’d come through on that inner loop, he had it put together and moved up to 27th overall on the day. It was really a top-end performance on the back half of the course.”
Howes has been enjoying his final year of high school running. He came to the team from soccer as a sophomore and had just a taste of the sport in the COVID-19 abbreviated schedule. He came back last year and moved into the top seven, which opened his eyes to his potential. He upped his training coming into this year to become a leader along with his senior teammates.
“All summer, my teammates Marty and Zach would train with me all the time and they would push me on runs,” said Howes. “Having teammates to stick with you through all the runs really helped me out. The fact that me, Marty, and Zach have been able to have such great seasons, it just means so much to me really. I’ve been friends with them for a long time and I feel like we’ve bonded a lot over the last few months because of this.”
Howes has moved up considerably overall to help lessen the graduation and injury losses suffered by PHS. His development has been a bright spot for the Tigers. In two years, he has come a long way.
“Last year he kind of keyed in on one of our top guys and did whatever they were doing,” said Smirk. “He kind of rode that experience. This year he’s contributing at a completely different level. He’s making great race decisions. He’s bringing his strengths to our top spot. Instead of being a good scorer, someone you know is going to be there, he’s actually influencing outcomes of races by changing the race dynamic and pressing competitors in spots maybe that they don’t want to and working with Marty and Zach to create some pressure as a team pack. He’s a huge addition for us this year.”
Howes looks forward to the outdoor track season as well for the chance to close out his high school career in his favorite season before he looks to run in college and study business. The county meet is just the start of the championship portion of the season and Princeton’s win is a stepping stone to the state meets to come.
“We knew we were still capable of doing well in the postseason,” said Howes. “Our goal is to do well. We want to win sectionals and we think we can do it if everyone has a good race. Our team goal is to make it to the Meet of Champions. We knew it’s going to be difficult. We’re not as well rounded as last year, but we know if we have the right attitude going into every race we can do what we want to achieve.”