November 2, 2022

Sparked by Finishing Kick from Senior Standout Kreipke, PHS Girls’ Cross Country 5th in Sectional, Making Groups

BREAKING LOOSE: Princeton High girls’ cross country runner Lucy Kreipke displays her form in a race earlier this season. Last Saturday, senior standout Kreipke made a big finishing kick to take eighth individually in the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional meet at Thompson Park. Kreipke’s heroics helped PHS place fifth in the team standings, qualifying for a spot in the in the Group 4 state meet on November 5 at Holmdel Park. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Lucy Kreipke is done with Thompson Park, but her lasting memory of her most challenging course is a good one, part of shaping a positive start to her final high school season.

The Princeton High senior held on for eighth place individually in 19:50.60 to help the Tigers squad to fifth place at the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional meet Saturday. Depleted by injury and illness, PHS narrowly captured the final automatic qualifying team spot by just two points over Montgomery High, and will advance to compete in the Group 4 state championship meet at Holmdel Park this Saturday.

“Cross country is my favorite season,” said Kreipke. “It’s such a great team dynamic and everything. It’s very meaningful to go back and be there for groups and have the whole team with us and try to get everyone healthy and make that effort to be on the line and be able to make a good showing at groups.”

PHS had to fight for each finishing spot to get through the sectional meet. Kreipke was just four-hundredths of a second ahead of her closest finisher. She ran almost six seconds faster than she had at Thompson Park the week before in the Mercer County Championships, and she would have liked to have gone even faster at sectionals when the Tigers needed every possible spot.

“In the very final stretch, I was focusing on catching this girl right in front of me and I think the South Brunswick girl was also sprinting right at the end,” said Kreipke. “Her teammates were screaming. I didn’t notice she was anywhere near me until we crossed the line literally at the same time. I didn’t realize how close they were. But I’m very glad it was just those couple hundredths of a second. That could have made the points different.”

Kyleigh Tangen was 11th in 19:53.29, only 2.6 seconds ahead of 12th place. The junior was a big part of keeping Kreipke pushing hard through the final mile of the race.

“It was so great having Kyleigh around me while we were running,” said Kreipke. “We ran together most of the race, and it’s so nice to have your teammates around you. It was nice to have a good race and be able to end it on a happy note. I just wish I could have raced faster.”

Senior Robin Roth, still coming back from illness, took 14th in 20:06.34, 3.5 seconds better than 15th. Freshman Avery Ellen Bahr took 50 seconds off from her county time the week before to run 21:17.75, outleaning a Hightstown runner with the same time for the 30th spot. Junior Emma Smirk ran a 45-second personal record on the course of 24:32.60 for 84th to round out the scoring, and Tessa Thai was 85th in 24:36.86. PHS didn’t have enough healthy bodies to field a seventh runner.

“Everybody had to carry their own load and deal with their own challenges,” said PHS head coach Jim Smirk. “We talked when we huddled up today before we raced, that we weren’t going to win this with one big thing but lots of small things. We kept talking about get the small win, and if we get the small win, good things will happen. When you’re into the 14th or 16th in your depth spot to field six runners, you’re looking to put together something special just to get out. I’m super happy with it. I think the girls are thrilled, especially our top three veterans – Lucy, Kyleigh, and Robin.”

The PHS boys captured second place in their sectional race, coming up only three points shy of first-place Montgomery. Senior Marty Brophy finished third individually in 16:05.37 to lead three PHS seniors. Senior Charlie Howes ran 16:47.98 for 13th,  senior Zach Deng was 21st, junior Max Dunlap was 26th and freshman Braedyn Capone placed 39th to finish their scoring. Freshman Atticus Ayres was 70th and sophomore Felix Farrugia was 80th.

“Certainly we’re really happy with a second-place finish,” said Smirk. “When you looked at the whole season and which teams are moving up and which teams are moving back, we looked like were going to be a little further down the race performance there before the race. A second-place finish is great for us. The fact that it came down to a couple points – certainly we would have loved to be on the other side of that – but Montgomery is a good team. They’ve raced really hard teams all year. I think they were probably a little underrated based on how successful they were against those really strong teams.”

Both the boys and the girls will be looking to move on from the Group 4 state meet to the Meet of Champions. It’s a complicated advancement procedure with only the top team in each group plus the top 10 individual finishers in each group guaranteed to go through, then it comes down to wildcards for the next eight fastest teams overall from across all groups, plus the top 30 individuals overall from across all groups that are not already going with a team qualifier. The boys by virtue of being the healthier of the two PHS teams probably have the better chance to advance.

“I think we’re in a good spot,” said Smirk. “We have a chance to perform at or above where we were this week. We have some things to sort out, but that’s why we have practice all week. I don’t think they’re major things. The training has been going well. It’s a little bit of tactical decision making we need to work on, the technical skill sets we need to clean up. From there we’ll be able to put ourselves in a good position.”

Kreipke will be looking for her second MOC appearance. She and the Tigers eventually reached the MOC last year after her teammates helped her recover from an off day at Thompson in sectionals. Kreipke was only Princeton’s fourth finisher last year, 28th overall.

“A year ago, she got to the top of the last hill and she looked down at her feet,” said Smirk. “Today, she came to the top of the hill and accelerated hard over the top and just flew down the backside of it. She fought for it and that’s what happens. You keep fighting for it and four-hundredths of a second is maybe two widths of a hair.”

Kreipke also had a challenging spring track and field season that didn’t meet her expectations. Much of it she blames on not finding herself in a good headspace before races and training. But she came through the tough year with a better outlook for her final season of high school running.

“This season, I think I’ve grown in just being able to trust my training and trust what I’m doing and being able to have a little bit more confidence in my abilities and such,” said Kreipke. “And from that I’ve been less anxious leading up to races and having a better outlook on it and even having a better outlook after a race, even if it’s a bad race or one where the time wasn’t as good or tactically if it was a little tough, being able to look back and see what I can change from there. It’s comforting more so to me not to think too much about honestly how I did not enjoy the spring track season, but more so to think about how I’ve grown since then.”

Kreipke has found her passion for running again. She is hoping to continue running next year at Smith College after enjoying a strong senior year for PHS. Reaching the groups was particularly meaningful for the Tigers, given that they weren’t sure they would make it out of sectionals this year. They were walking back to their tent, prepared for the possibility that they wouldn’t advance when they heard their names announced as the fifth team.

“We all started jumping up and down and screaming,” said Kreipke. “I think everyone around us was wondering why we were screaming since we only got fifth place. But we were so happy and so relieved that we made it out. It was definitely nerve-wracking. The entire team was going in thinking, let’s try to make it out individually because who even knows for the team? We’re all so relieved and everyone ran great so I’m excited that we get to be back as a team at Holmdel for groups.”

Now the Tigers turn their attention to the famed Holmdel course and the challenging Group 4 state competition. Each runner knows it’s possible this could be their final race of the season, but they are trying to extend their year together.

“Who knows if we’ll make it out as a team or if anyone will make it individually, but it’s going to be so great to be back there as a whole team,” said Kreipke. “It’s going to be awesome trying to get Clare (Johnson) healthy so she can race at groups because she was really not able to race at sectionals. It’d be amazing if she could have a good last race at Holmdel. It’s meaningful to all of us to be able to be back there. And Holmdel is universally on the team considered a fun course to run and we’ve always had fun races there. We’re all excited to go back.”

Kreipke ran 20:24 at the Shore Coaches meet on October 1 at Holmdel. It was one second better than she ran there at last year’s MOC. And Kreipke is a lot happier to be on the Holmdel course than she was for Thompson.

“My overall goal is to at least get out of groups and get to go to Meet of Champs one more time,” said Kreipke. “Honestly, it’s at its core such a fun race. I really do love the course of Holmdel. There’s always some time-related goals. I really would love to finish my high school career with being able to go sub-20:00 at Holmdel. Who knows if that’s really in the cards? I hope I’m physically capable of doing that, it’s more so mentally getting in the right mindset. I just want to have fun with it and hopefully that’s enough to have a good race and get out to Meet of Champs. Who knows if it’s in the cards to have a team come out to Meet of Champs this year? I hope. The team has been just so great this year. It would be great for all of us or any of us to get to go again.”

Kreipke finds herself marveling that she is already a senior, and how grown up she and her past and current teammates are. She still looks at Tangen as a freshman though she’s a junior. Kreipke’s own career has developed steadily. She broke in as a freshman who had the chance to run at the group meet, ran through the COVID-shortened 2020 schedule, reached the MOC for the first time last year and now has the chance to cap her fall with another MOC appearance.

“I’m happy with this season just because I’m finding more joy in actually running,” said Kreipke. “It’s always been a mantra of our team to run happy and find what you enjoy in running. I’ve definitely struggled with that in the past and wondered, why am I actually doing this, and what is it about the sport that actually makes me happy besides the people on the team. I’ve been just been happier out on my runs or doing workouts and finding more peace with the sport and running as a thing instead of focusing too much on the times or the places and getting into a bad headspace. I’ve been more at peace which is a nice way to end my years of cross country for the high school.”