May 24, 2023

With Junior Quallen Flying High for PHS Boys’ Track, Tigers Overcome Rain, Adversity to Win County Meet

WET AND WONDERFUL: Members of the Princeton High boys’ track team celebrate through a downpour after the squad placed first at the Mercer County Outdoor Track Championships last weekend at Robbinsville High. PHS piled up 91 points to take the title with Trenton Central scoring 76 to take second.

By Justin Feil

Sawyer Quallen didn’t have the chance to compete in the last two Mercer County Outdoor Track Championships due to injuries. Last weekend, the Princeton High junior made the most of his first time competing in counties as he helped the Tiger boys battle through rain and adversity to capture their first team title since 2018.

“We knew it about a 50-50 shot,” said Quallen. “We’ve trained our guys to do whatever they need to do to put their bodies on the line and do whatever we need. We knew no matter the struggle, we could come out on top. We were confident. It dipped a little after the first day, but everyone came out guns blazing on the second day. Everyone was thirsty to get it done.”

Quallen did his part to bolster the Tigers’ chances. He came within a half-inch of the school record when he won the triple jump with a personal best of 44’ 11.25. He also picked up fourth-place points with a 19’11 long jump. And for the first time in his career, he ran the 4×100 meters. He led off the relay that surprised everyone with a third-place finish and helped turn the tide of the meet.

“It means a lot,” said Quallen. “For me personally, getting my own personal best, getting within a half-inch of the school record feels good. It feels good to bring that to the team. A lot of meets, it feels like it’s just for you. But for this meet, it feels like you want to contribute as much as you can to the team. It feels awesome to be a part of it.”

PHS had to dig a little deeper in the two-day meet after the first day didn’t go close to predicted. When the Tigers missed out on possible first-place points from Zach Della Rocca in the 400 meters after he was still feeling the effects of winning the 100 meters and Oleg Brennan fouling his first three throws to not place in the discus, the Tigers had to recalculate how they might overcome a strong Trenton Central High team.

“We were in a position at the end of Day One where I was actually considering resting some of our team because things looked so bleak,” said PHS head coach Ben Samara. “Then we came back on Saturday and the kids refused to let things go and they made things happen that we didn’t even think were possible when the weekend started. We ended up still scoring 90 points despite losing all those points in the beginning.”

One of the team’s seniors, Drew Pianka, especially urged Samara to redo the calculations to see if the Tigers had a chance to win Saturday. Samara saw a slim chance if things could break for PHS and made sure not to leave anyone home Saturday.

“If not for Drew,” said Samara, “we might not have this county title.”

The 4×100 relay was a huge turning point, as was Della Rocca being able to return to win the 200 meters on the second day and help the 4×400 relay take third to seal the victory. Andrew Kenny and Charles Howes went second and fourth in the 800 to lock up the crown.

“We’ve been talking all week how Saturday wasn’t supposed to be a great weather day and how we needed to turn that into a positive for us,” said Samara. “We needed to try to steal points, and use that inclement weather to our advantage somehow. There’s no better place to look at that than in our boys 4×1.”

Quallen was part of a team that individually wasn’t full of top sprinters, but they were willing to work together to try to score a point for the Tigers. He had never run a 4×100 relay before Saturday, but looked at it as a job to help the team.

“It was a little stressful,” said Quallen. “I’ve never done a start in a year. Never done a start on the curve. It’s something you have to deal with. You’re in the moment, you’re hyped up, you have to push as hard as you can.”

Quallen, Ishaq Inayat, Pianka, and Blake Bergman ran 45.86 for third place. When Trenton took sixth place, the relay ended up being a 13-point swing from pre-meet expectations.

“We were so happy,” said Quallen. “When we started it, we were thinking we got fifth or sixth or win our heat. When we jumped up to third, that’s when it started snowballing. Everyone on the side came out and was screaming their heads off. That’s when we knew we had a real chance of winning this thing.”

The points built momentum through the two-day meet. Della Rocca won the 100 in 10.98 seconds and the 200 in 22.07 seconds.

“Even after not being to get to the line for the 400, he took care of himself that night, and he came back and wins the 200,” said Samara. “And Trenton only gets sixth, which ended up being another 10-11 point swing from what we thought was going to happen. What a comeback for Zach. He was devastated on Friday. He comes back and gets another county championship on Saturday and helps us win.”

Kenny ran 1:59.82 for silver and in the 800, and Howes was fourth in 2:02.18. They were also a part of the winning 4×800 relay along with Marty Brophy and Josh Barzilai. Kenny had to run not only through the rain but sickness after he had come back this spring from injuries that kept him out all fall and winter.

“He was not in good shape all week leading up and all weekend, but there was still never a question if he’d be able to run or whether he’d be able to contribute,” said Samara. “Then what he and Charlie did in the 800 in that torrential downpour, it essentially closed the meet out for us. The 800 is such a crapshoot. We were saying if we can get four to six points out of it, we’ll be happy. We end up getting 12 points there, and it shuts things down.”

Brophy took third in the 3,200 meters and fourth in the 1,600 in addition to his relay work. Zach Deng placed sixth in the 3,200. Brophy was part of the 4×800 as well as the third-place 4×400 that included Barzilai and Ben Gitai along with Della Rocca to cap a heavy workload.

Sean Wilton picked up points in the throws. The sophomore placed third in discus with a 138’7 effort, and fourth in shot put with a throw of 49’8.

“Then you look at Sean Wilton, a young thrower that comes up with a third and a fourth, so he had huge points,” said Samara. “It is only his second year. Getting close to cracking 50-feet (in shot), he is going to be
doing some big things on
the state level in the next couple years.”

The PHS boys went on to finish with 91 points to outscore runner-up Trenton by 15 points. The Tigers placed ninth in the girls meet as Katherine Monroe took third in the 100 hurdles and Grace DeFaria placed fifth in the long jump to provide highlights for PHS.

“I think we’ve had all the pieces together but hadn’t had them at the same time,” said Quallen. “Zach was injured in the winter, a couple throwers were out. I was injured in winter. All the hard work is paying off. Everyone works hard day and night. It’s finally paying off, so it feels really good.”

Quallen had been forced to watch the last two outdoor county meets. A hamstring injury derailed his freshman year and his sophomore season was hampered by ankle injuries. He has worked all year to return to the PHS lineup, and is feeling about 90 percent back to normal after changing his outlook.

“I think it was about me taking accountability,” said Quallen. “When you get hurt, it’s a freak accident. There are always things you can do to minimize that. I started doing more rehab, more extensive warm-up and taking care of my body like I never did before. It’s not by chance I am more healthy and can be more competitive. It feels good. You can see it in the results, you can see it in the pain. I’m not feeling that much pain anymore.”

He put together a strong day Saturday highlighted by his triple jump. He put himself less than an inch from the record books with still sectional and group meets to aim for to end the year.

“It was over a foot PR just off some minor adjustments I made,” said Quallen. “I was pushing off every phase, not trying to conserve. I was really pushing my body.”

Quallen’s return was critical to PHS winning the county crown. He was an important piece of the title team, part of a special group that put the Tigers back on top after a four-year hiatus. It took a lot of determination after the meet didn’t go as smoothly as they had hoped, but in the end they had plenty of points for a championship.

“In 2017, we lost to West Windsor North by one point,” said Samara. “And that was sort of the catalyst for 2018. In 2019 we had almost all of our kids back but we had some injuries and some misfortune and we ended up losing that meet by only a couple points as well. We were a couple points away from going 2017-2018-2019, but that shows you these meets are not easy to win. It’s one of the harder county titles to win in any sport.”

PHS will try to build on the momentum of the resolve it showed in winning counties when it heads to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Central Jersey Group 4 sectional June 2-3. The Tigers have confidence after coming through Saturday.

“On the boys side, South Brunswick seems to have one of those all-time teams,” said Samara. “It’s going to be tough to get past them. We’re going to make a decision whether or not we put ourselves in a position to steal it if they falter, or are we going to be giving our athletes more of a look individually to see where they could hit some big PRs and move themselves forward individually. We should get a good group moving on to groups.”