November 16, 2022

With New Coach Mazzei Instilling Work Ethic, PDS Girls’ Cross Country Won 1st Prep B Crown

SPOILS OF VICTORY: Members of the Princeton Day School girls’ cross country team display the trophies they earned for placing first in the Prep B state meet on November 1 at the Blair Academy. Pictured, from left, are assistant coach Chris Devlin, Jesse Hollander, Maddy Weinstein, Emily McCann, Natalia Soffer, Brooke Law, Harleen Sandu, Riya Mani, Jamie Crease, assistant coach Kelly Clark, and head coach Mike Mazzei. It marked the first Prep B title for the girls’ cross country program. (Photo provided by Mike Mazzei)

By Bill Alden

Mike Mazzei brought an intensity and work ethic to the Princeton Day School cross country team as he took the helm of the program this fall.

Having walked on to the Rider University track and cross country program after competing at Middlesex County College, Mazzei developed into a star for the Broncs, culminating his career by helping the team’s 4×800-meter relay to a gold medal at the 2021 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Outdoor Championships and taking seventh in the 800 at that meet.

“The coach at Rider gave me an opportunity and when I met with him, he said I blew him way with how passionate I was to be great,” said Mazzei. “I made something out of myself. I put the work in and started to be one of the better runners on the team.”

Drawing on his Rider experience, Mazzei had high aspirations for PDS in his debut season.

“I came to PDS and my goal was to win Prep championship,” said Mazzei, who helped coach the PDS track program this past spring and had previously coached at his high school alma mater St Thomas Aquinas (formerly known as Bishop Ahr). “When I was in college, I always wanted to win conference titles.”

Mazzei helped the Panthers achieve that goal as the PDS girls’ squad placed first in the Prep B state meet on November 1 at the Blair Academy. The Panthers had a team score of 37 with runner up Rutgers Prep coming in at 80, producing a dominant performance in earning the girls program’s first-ever Prep B crown.

Junior star Emily McCann set the pace for PDS, placing second individually in a time of 20:15 over the 5,000-meter course. Junior Jesse Hollander was next for the Panthers, coming in fourth followed by junior Harleen Sandu in sixth, junior Brooke Law in 16th, and freshman Riya Mani in 20th.

“We did the taper right, that was the goal,” said Mazzei. “We wanted to be in our best shape at that meet. That was the meet that we wanted to win the whole season. I knew we had a shot to win.”

Having McCann at the front of the pack was key for the Panthers.

“It is amazing how she has performed, she was already a star of the program,” said Mazzei of McCain who competed individually in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Meet of Champions last Saturday. at Holmdel Park and took 62nd in a time of 20:24 over the 5,000-meter course. “I feel like this year she took it to a new level. I was really happy to see that. She was always a good runner, now she is starting to get to that elite in the state. I have coached good runners  and I wanted to make them great. Emily was the first person I had who was already great who I could help reach an elite level.”

Taking a page out of their coach’s book, McCann and Sandu put in a lot of work over the offseason to get better, pushing up their weekly mileage.

“Emily and Harleen reacted very well to it when we started preseason and went into the fall season,” said Mazzei. “We were around 35 miles with some down weeks. One week towards the end of the summer training, we had 50 miles and that was it. That was our highest week that we had and then we started going down.”

It took a total team effort for the Panthers to win the Prep B meet.
“We had a good shot of winning this but we have to be focused, our one through five spots are what matters,” said Mazzei, whose team went on to place 11th in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Non-Public A championship meet on November 5 at Holmdel Park. “We made it work. We had a good first five and we had a sixth and seventh where if one person dropped out, we could still win. Emily fell down the hill and still finished second. It said so much about her character. She was hurt but she has grit. That was the good thing to show the team, even if Emily dropped out we would still have won the race. That shows how strong our team is.”

Hollander showed grit as she was sidelined by a leg injury for most of the fall but was able to come up big at the end.

“Jess is a good athlete and a great runner; she was already doing good mileage at the start, she was right next to Emily in the workouts,” said Mazzei. “She had to cross train and all of that stuff. She got put in a boot. She was biking and swimming. I told her realistically all we need you for is Preps, we should make it a goal to be back for Preps and that is what we did. She ran one dual meet before Preps and was our first girl that day because Emily didn’t run.”

While the PDS boys didn’t achieve Mazzei’s goal as they took third at the Prep B meet, they still had an encouraging performance. Newark Academy placed first with a score of 38, followed by Montclair Kimberley Academy at 44 and the Panthers coming in at 69 for third.

Junior Arun Patel set the pace for the PDS, taking seventh individually in a time of 18:26 over the 5,000-meter course with Ben Jerris coming in ninth, freshman Grayson McLaughlin placing 11th, senior Will Brown next in 14th and freshman Alexander Chia in 28th.

“Going into that race we thought we had a chance but Newark Academy had strong team,” said Mazzei. “We went out there and we gave it our all. We all had fun.”

Mazzei had fun watching Patel’s progress this fall. “Arun had a good summer; he didn’t do exactly what we wanted in the fall season, he didn’t feel satisfied with what he was doing,” said Mazzei. “He still ran well for us. When we needed him to step up, he stepped up. He got seventh at the Preps, it was his first top ten there.”

Senior Jerris stepped up in his final campaign. “Ben was a phenomenal runner and a phenomenal leader,” said Mazzei of Jerris, who placed 16th individually at the NJSIAA Non-Public A championship meet on November 5 at Holmdel Park to help PDS take fifth in the team standings.

“He was one of our captains, he was a great senior. I think he ran 22 minutes his first year. He improved each year and he was very good by his senior year. He dropped his time. He was one of those kids that over the summer, everything I gave him to do, he did it. He is great runner. He is one of those people who shows that hard work pays off.”

Looking ahead, the Panthers have plenty to work with. “We have a lot of young talent,” said Mazzei.

“Alex and Grayson will be more developed next year and we will have Arun as a senior. Tom Poljevka was our third guy for the majority of the year and he improved a lot. He had a leg injury near the end.”

With the talent in place on both teams, Mazzei has ambitious goals for next fall.

“What we are going for next year is the double,” said Mazzei. “We want to win the Prep championship for girls and guys. We have a strong core. I saw them this fall and will have a better idea of what to do with them this summer. I am excited for that.”