History was made last weekend at both Oak Ridge Park in Clark and the Garret Mountain Reserve in Woodland Park, when three Hudson County teams captured team titles at the NJSIAA state sectionals.
Never before had three local teams won state sectional championships in the same year.
Around the state, Hudson County gets a bum rap for not producing the best cross-country performers, so this year was basically a thumb-to-the-nose to the rest of New Jersey. Crowing three state sectional champions – not to mention two individual state gold medal winners – is certainly nothing to sneeze at.
At Oak Ridge Park, McNair Academic’s boys won their second state sectional crown in three years and the fourth in the school’s history, taking home top honors in the North 2, Group I sectional. The Cougars outkicked Dayton Regional of Springfield to win team honors by 23 points. Secaucus was third.
In another year, there would have been medals and trophies to be awarded, but not so in a pandemic year.
“It was a little weird not having medals or awards,” veteran McNair Academic head coach Matt Hogan said. “But we were very happy with the way we ran. We felt like we were heavy favorites, even though we only ran at Lincoln Park and Bayonne Park this season.”
To get prepared for the sectionals, Hogan took the Cougars – both boys and girls – to the new course at Oak Ridge Park, which hosted a state sectional meet for the first time.
“We went there three times,” Hogan said. “It gave them a sense of team to see where they were going to run and what pace would be good.”
Because his team lost at the state sectionals last year, Hogan didn’t want to put any added pressure on the Cougar boys.
“To be honest, I was concerned about that,” Hogan said. “We won two years ago and lost last year. Maybe it put a little fire in them. These kids put in a good summer. I was very hands off with them. I didn’t want to put too much pressure on them with practice. I stayed away from specific workouts. I just told them the types of workouts they should be doing.”
The Cougar names read like the bottom line of an optometrist’s eye chart. No chance for spelling errors here, right?
Senior Adam Abushanab was the first Cougar to cross the finish line. He finished second overall in 17:24.60. Senior Harshith Samayamantula, pronounced exactly as it is spelled, was fifth overall in 17:46.90. Try putting that name on the back of a jersey.
“Harsh went out like a maniac and tried to run away with it,” Hogan said. “He didn’t realize how fast he was going. He once had a 10-to-15 meter lead, but he was too juiced up and they caught him.”
Sophomore Noah Page was sixth overall in 17:54.70, freshman Raymond Guerrero was seventh, senior Taimoor Sohail was ninth, senior Flobatier Salib was 11th and senior Tyrese Gilbert was 12th overall. All seven of the McNair Academic runners placed among the top 12.
“I told them that this was it,” Hogan said. “This was the one chance to run together. There was no chance to run at Holmdel [the NJSIAA canceled the Group meets and the Meet of Champions this year because of the pandemic], so we treated it like it was the last one. It’s a wonderful way to end the season. I’d still rather go to Holmdel and take a beating, but I’m not going to say that winning isn’t nice.”
At Garret Mountain, both St. Peter’s Prep and St. Dominic created history by winning state sectional championships, as the state never had a sectional for the Non-Public schools before.
But the Marauders romped home in Non-Public A North, easily outdistancing Seton Hall Prep by 32 points, 29-to-61.
“It could be our first and last,” Prep head coach Chris Caulfield said. “To be perfectly honest, I’m over the moon with the way the kids responded. It could be difficult being a teenage boy and then go out and run a great race.”
Leading the way for the Marauders was Rodolfo Sanchez, the senior who was also the Hudson County Track Coaches Association champion two weeks ago. Sanchez finished second behind winner Kevin Harvey of Seton Hall Prep, who won the race in 16:16. Sanchez finished in 16:47.
Incredibly, Sanchez ran the race on two broken toes that he suffered in a freak accident.
“We taped him up and he stepped it up and ran,” Caulfield said.
Edwin Klanke, the fellow Prep senior who started the season ranked as the top returning runner in the state, finished third in 16:55. Klanke has also been battling an injury, a nagging core muscle injury in his side.
“It was definitely affecting his breathing,” Caulfield said of Klanke’s injury. “I know he was not happy with the way he was running.”
Ethan Blackwelder, another Prep senior, was fifth overall in 17:02.
“He transferred here from Florida last year and couldn’t catch a break,” Caulfield said of Blackwelder, who was second to Sanchez in the county, then won the Jersey City meet two days later. “He sprained his ankle and then was dealing with a hip issue. We needed him in so many ways. He put us in the position to run competitively.”
Other top Prep performers include sophomore Alex Schimmel (eighth in 17:20), senior Jack Glynn (11th in 17:28) and senior Jack Sipperly (21st in 17:58).
“It was just a huge team effort,” Caulfield said. “We didn’t race well in Holmdel three weeks ago, then came back and won the county, won the city meet and won the state sectional. It says a lot about the makeup of this team, who picked each other up at different parts of the season.”
St. Dominic Academy had the closest of the locals, defeating perennial state favorite Villa Walsh by just eight points, 31-to-39.
Kayla Sullivan, who also won the HCTCA individual championship two weeks ago, won the state sectional gold medal in 20:30, a good 32 seconds ahead of runner-up Kavya Nivarthy of Newark Academy.
Milani Bethel of SDA was fourth in 21:43, followed by Charlotte Hennessey in sixth in 22:04.
Other Blue Devils to do well includes Caroline O’Donnell (ninth in 22:43), Madison Cortes (11th in 23:26), Tea Baramidze (12th in 23:36) and Lainey Nguyen (13th in 23:41).
Incredibly all seven Blue Devils finished among the top 13, the main reason for the Blue Devils’ team success.
Also incredibly, the Blue Devils competed in five events this season – and won all five.
“I told them back in September that if we stayed focused, we could win every meet we’re in,” veteran SDA head coach John Nagel said. “We beat 100 schools and beat everyone the whole season. That’s quite an accomplishment. I think they’re the second-best team in Hudson County history.”
Nagel said that there was a special feeling about going to Garret Mountain and winning, because it was the site of the Blue Devils’ first-ever trophy for cross country, winning a freshman race at the Passaic County Coaches Association meet in 1980. Unbeknownst to Nagel that day 40 years ago, SDA was still reeling from the loss of three nuns in a car accident in South Kearny the night before. The girls competed that day without the knowledge that three of their teachers had perished.
SDA did not compete at Garret Mountain from the mid-1990s through 2009.
“It’s still a special place,” Nagel said. “This is a very special team. They had a wonderful season.”
It would be easy to say, it’s on to indoor season, but that now is going to be delayed due to the COVID-19 crisis.
The NJSIAA revealed last Wednesday that all of the seasons in the winter months are being put on hold for the time being. The hockey season will now begin practice Dec. 14 and have its season run from Jan.4 through Feb. 17. The basketball, fencing and bowling seasons will begin practices Jan. 11 and have the season run from Jan. 26 through March 6. Swimming and indoor track will begin Feb. 1 and have meets from Feb. 16 through March 27. And the gymnastics, girls’ volleyball and wrestling seasons will begin practice March 1 and the season will go from March 16 through April 24.
There will be no NJSIAA state playoffs. There will also be no multi-team tournaments in basketball and no out-of-state play, either from a team coming into New Jersey or a Jersey team traveling out of state.
Needless to say, the trying year for high school sports will continue until the end of June…
Hudson Reporter High School Football Top Five: 1. St. Peter’s Prep (4-0). 2. Hoboken (5-2). 3. Union City (3-3). 4. Lincoln (5-3). 5. Hudson Catholic (3-4).
Hudson Reporter High School Soccer Top Five: 1. Union City (11-2). 2. Dickinson (7-3-1). 3. St. Peter’s Prep (10-5). 4. North Bergen (7-4). 5. Weehawken (7-2). – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com