November 9, 2022

Wilberforce Cross Country Enjoys Big Day at Groups, Girls’ Team Wins Team Title, Sallade 1st in Boys’ Race

STATE OF JOY: Members of the Wilberforce School girls’ cross country team celebrate after they placed first in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Non-Public B Group championship meet last Saturday at Holmdel Park. Pictured, from left, are Adeline Edwards, Laura Sallade, Virginia Whitman, Sophia Park, Abby Readlinger, Sophia Vardeman, Gwen Mersereau, and head coach Lois Szeliga. Wilberforce had a winning score of 43 to edge runner-up Villa Walsh, who came in at 54. It marked the second straight Non-Public state title for the program. (Photo provided by Lois Szeliga)

By Bill Alden

Even though the Wilberforce School girls’ cross country team placed first in the Mercer County championship meet in late October, it brought an underdog mentality into the Non-Public B Group Championships last Saturday at Holmdel Park.

“They come out with the previews and everyone was saying Villa Walsh, Villa Walsh,” said Wilberforce head coach Lois Szeliga. “Villa Walsh is traditionally very good and this year, they have been performing really well. You could see they won their counties, they won their conference. They were ranked 10th in the whole state going into the groups. Clearly they were the ones to mark.”

Having won Bob Kiessling Invitational on October 29 in a tuneup, the Wilberforce girls were up for the challenge.
“That was a really a close one, we won by two points,” said Szeliga, referring to the Kiessling meet which saw the Wolverines edge Paul VI 41-43. “The counties definitely gave us a lot of confidence as far against running against tough completion. Having the Kiessling meet and winning by such a narrow margin just galvanized in everybody’s head that ‘OK, everybody has to really focus and every point matters.’ That is what you want all of your athletes thinking.”

As it turned out, every point did matter on Saturday as Wilberforce won a tough battle with Villa Walsh, posting a scored of 43 to place first with the Vikings coming in second at 54.

Sophomore Adeline Edwards led the way for Wilberforce, placing fifth individually, clocking a time of 20:23 over the 5,000-meter course. Senior Sophia Park was next, taking seventh in 23:37 with freshman Laura Sallade finishing ninth in 20:52, sophomore Gwen Mersereau coming in 11th at 21:1, and senior Abby Readlinger placing 16th in 22:12.

“It was really an intense race, Villa Walsh is a great team,” said Szeliga. “You could see the girls, they were very gutsy. Those girls were really racing each other. It was definitely more like the hand-to-hand combat. It was a real fun competition that way, they all ran phenomenally. We ran that course in October and they all just smashed their times from then, which is what you really want to see.”

Edwards and Park ran very well as they dueled Villa Walsh runners.

“Adeline and Sophia were together; once those Villa Walsh girls started breaking out, Adeline went with the No. 1 Villa Walsh girl,” said Szeliga. “Adeline really stepped up. She is such a fierce competitor. She is determined, she left everything out there on the course. I was so proud of her, really fighting to the end against a girl who has done really well from Villa Walsh.”

Freshman Sallade has made big strides this fall. “It is very intimidating sometimes to be at the state championship, especially as a defending champion and she is a freshman,” said Szeliga. “She is one of our top runners and people could get nervous and you see that. She really embraced that. She loves competing;  it is a great mix of intensity but happy and joyful. It is fun for her.”

Szeliga was happy to see Mersereau come up big as she struggled with illness earlier in the fall.

“Gwen is back, she is feeling good and she is coming on strong right when the team needs her,” said Szeliga. “That was the big difference. Going in, she was ranked 18th and she finished 11th, which was really a big swing of points and really more of where she is capable. She came through huge.”

In addition, senior Readlinger has made huge progress in her final campaign.

“Abby was a minute and a half better than last year,” noted Szeliga. “To have a No. 5 runner that solid, that is the difference.”

Repeating as Non-Public state champions meant the world to the Wolverines.

“We are so thankful and we feel very blessed,” said Szeliga, noting that the school held a pep rally for the runners on Friday. “We try to have a good perspective, no matter what, and just try our best but it really is such a blessing and it is so exciting.”

It was an exciting day at the Group meet for the boys as senior star Jeremy Sallade placed first individually in a time of 17:01 with junior Caleb Brox taking second at 17:24.

Their heroics helped Wilberforce place third in the team standings with a score of 112, trailing just champion St. Rose (74) and Bishop Eustace (91).

“Jeremy has had such a great season, he was finally feeling good after he had battled some early illness,” said Szeliga. “It was clicking for him. He had a great county meet, he ran really well at Bob Kiessling. Jeremy has that leg speed, he felt good and that is what matters. I am so happy for him because he is such a superstar athlete and to have it all come together for a state title, that is something that people can’t take away from you.”

Having trained and raced with each other over the last three seasons paid dividends for Sallade and Brox at the Group meet.

“They were working together and I think they both knew that there was going to come a point where they go into the woods and are just going to lay it all out there,” said Szeliga of the pair who both qualified individually for the upcoming Meet of Champions. “Jeremy had a lot of gas left. They put a lot of distance between them and the rest of the pack. Everybody was saying, coach your two boys are out front. They have run together for so many years. To end with this, a 1-2 victory, is very special.”

It was very special for the Wolverine boy runners to place third in the team standings.

“Our boys got on the podium for the very first time,” said Szeliga, who got a 25th place finish from sophomore Philip Schidlovsky in 19:32 with junior Matthew Damrau taking 36th in 20:29 and junior Gabe Chemodakov coming in 55th with a time of 21:28. “Jeremy and Caleb recruited a lot of those boys. They saw what the girls did last year and they really wanted to put together a team. We have still got to get that boys’ championship. They did the best our school has ever done in the state meet. For a lot of the kids it was their first time there and I think they are really going want to come back and try again. All of my top five besides Jeremy are coming back.”

Looking ahead to the MOC, which is slated for November 12 at Holmdel Park, Szeliga believes her girls’ squad could make some more history.

“We would like to finish in the top 10, it would be awesome,” said Szeliga, noting that her girls’ squad is now ranked eighth in the state when times are merged.

“It is such a little school. We didn’t have a girls’ team until 2018, that was the first year of having a full squad. Now we are winning the state championship. There is a lot of excitement, it is remarkable. The girls love each other, they really do. They spend so much time together. As soon as they are done with the race, they go to somebody’s house and hang out. They have their long runs where they can have their conversations.”

The run this fall by those girls has left a lot of people talking about Wilberforce.