October 26, 2022

Sparked by Park’s Improvement, Leadership, Wilberforce Girls’ Cross County Wins County Meet

WILL TO WIN: Members of the Wilberforce Schools girls’ cross country team are all smiles after they placed first in the Mercer County Cross Country Championships last Thursday at Thompson Park. Pictured, from left, are head coach Lois Szeliga, Sophia Vardeman, Gwen Mersereau, Abby Readlinger, Sophia Park, Virginia Whitman, Adeline Edwards, and Laura Sallade. Wilberforce had a winning score of 88 with WW/P-South taking second with 94. (Photo provided courtesy of Lois Szeliga)

By Bill Alden

Coming into her senior season this fall for the Wilberforce School girls’ cross country team, Sophia Park put in some extra work.

“I trained pretty hard, I got a lot of mileage in,” said Park. “This summer before the preseason started I was running 35-40 mile weeks. My long run was about 10 miles.”

Last Thursday, that work paid dividends at the Mercer County Cross Country Championships at Thompson Park as Park finished seventh individually to help Wilberforce win the team title.

In earning its first-ever county team crown, the Wolverines had a score of 88 with WW/P-South taking second at 94. Following Park for Wilberforce was sophomore Adeline Edwards, who took 11th, freshman Laura Sallade in 20th, sophomore Gwen Mersereau, the 23rd finisher, and senior Abigail Readlinger, who came in 33rd.

Park’s race plan centered on tracking Princeton High runners.

“We actually thought that Princeton High was the team to beat, they were racing really well,” said Park who clocked a time of 20:03.80 over the 5,000-meter course at Thompson Park. “We started the race and there were three of them in front of me. I just kept locking in on the one in front of me.”

As the race unfolded, Park picked off one runner after the other.

“It was very windy; when I started, I was not in the super front,” said Park. “Throughout the race, I just kept passing people so it was actually a pretty fun race for me.”

Learning the final result proved to be a very fun moment for Park and her teammates.

“That was awesome, we were all standing around the time sheet,” recalled Park. “It was the whole Wilberforce crowd that cheered; we saw Wilberforce in first and we all started screaming. It is so amazing, like to hear people to go ‘Wilberforce, what is Wilberforce?’”

For Park, her passion for running deepened last season when Mersereau and Edwards joined the squad.

“The turning point for me was when Gwen and Adeline came to the team, because when I started I was the top runner on the team but I wasn’t that fast,” said Park. “When they came, they were right up on me and I was like dang, I am really competitive now. I am so grateful that they came. We just push each other every day and it is history from there.”

Getting pushed by Wilberforce head coach Lois Szeliga has also been key to Park’s development.

“We have the best coach,” said Park. “She is great, she is so encouraging.”

Szeliga, for her part, sensed her girls’ squad could have a great day last Thursday.

“Looking at it, I knew there was a path to win; any one of three or four teams could win this,” said Szeliga. “I talked to them and said ‘we could win this,’ so they did know that going in. It was very close, there was no way to calculate it.”

With such a close competition, every point counted. “Every runner passed one or two girls at the end, they each went for it,” said Szeliga. “Gwen passed three people in the last 100. Laura passed at least one person. Everyone passed at least one person, and all those together added up since we only won by six points.”

For Szeliga, seeing her squad make history was unforgettable.

“They were screaming and hugging, parents were screaming and hugging,” said Szeliga. “It was unbelievable, you just want to do the best that you can. As the season progressed, I saw Adeline and Sophia doing so well in races, always placing at the top. I saw Laura coming on. You can look and see how people are doing, and I knew there was a chance for them to actually win. It was, ‘do your best, but we have got a shot.’ These are really elite schools that always have great programs. It is just an honor because they are great competitors.”

Szeliga credits Park with sparking the team’s competitive fire.

“Sophia is so hungry, she is so inspiring to the team; she really pushes everybody to go the extra mile and do the extra reps,” said Szeliga. “She wants success, she wants the team to be successful. She is a great leader in that way. Everything is so important to her as a senior. You could tell that she really wanted to take it all through the race. She was going after it and didn’t let up. She had a phenomenal race.”

Edwards has emerged as a star after a promising freshman season.

“Adeline has had a breakout season; last year was her first year and she has improved,” said Szeliga, noting that Edwards new school record of 19:24.4 for the 5,000-meters at Peddie on September 24. “She was such a surprise last year. She is not a surprise anymore, and she is getting into that elite category. She is very competitive, she has just been performing so well.”

The Wolverines got a breakout performance last Thursday from freshman Sallade.

“Laura has been consistently improving just like you want a new runner to do,” said Szeliga. “Each race she is getting better and better. She is a soccer player like her brother (senior star Jeremy Sallade). She had to make a decision, which is very difficult for a young girl to do. She said she was going to give cross country a try. She loves it. She is so talented and she is such a competitor.”

Sophomore standout Mersereau is hitting her stride after a tough start to the season.

“Gwen has had some health setbacks this fall, she has been battling some sicknesses,” said Szeliga. “I really think those are behind her. She had a great kick on Thursday. She looked good.”

Readlinger came through in her final county competition.

“Abby has improved so much this season,” said Szeliga, noting that Readlinger’s time of 21:47.70 on Thursday was a personal record. “With each race, she has improved. With cross country, the No. 5 runner is key, where they place is how you can win.”

With the Non-Public Group meet coming up in early November, Szeliga believes that winning the county title is a good springboard for the state meet.

“I think this really puts us in good shape to get the nerves out for the championship races,” said Szeliga.

“It is a big deal and it is good to acclimate to a championship type race. For them to find that grit and to really push to the end for the team puts us in a great position to go for it.”

As for the Wilberforce boys, Szeliga got a championship effort from senior standout Jeremy Sallade, who placed third in 16:25.00, just six seconds behind winner Ayush Saran of WW/P-South.

“Jeremy did come close to winning the county championship, it was a really great race,” said Szeliga. “He really has a great camaraderie with all of these local kids. They have a great deal of respect for each other, they are friends.”

Battling with Marty Brophy of PHS down the stretch helped push Sallade to the front of the pack.

“I think Marty and Jeremy had to run the fastest last mile, the two of them were racing each other that last mile,” saids Szeliga, whose boys’ team 10th in the team standings of the race won by PHS. “The race between the two of them brought them almost to the lead of the whole race. He ran a fantastic race.”

Junior Caleb Brox also had a fantastic race for the Wolverines, taking seventh.

“That is part of how they are so successful because they really push each other and they work great together,” said Szeliga of Brox and Sallade. “They have gone back and forth this whole season as to who is taking the lead. That gives a freshness to every race. They can race each other and gauge where they are at.”

Szeliga likes where her boys’ team is at as its next three runners — junior Matt Damrau (41st place), sophomore Philip Schidlovsky (72nd place), and junior Gabe Chemodakov (101st place) — have plenty of room for growth.

“We have some newcomers who are very promising,” said Szeliga, noting that her No. 3, 4, and 5 runners that all joined the team this fall. “We are building the depth. The boys are in a growing phase, catching the excitement of the girls.”

Park, for her part, is trying to pass on the excitement of running to her younger teammates.

“I just love all of the girls on the team,” said Park. “I hope they can love running just as much as I do now earlier so they can really take it in and train hard. It is just a great sport to grow as a person.”