LOGAN TWP. >> Cherokee successfully defended its team title at the NJSIAA South Boys Cross Country Sectional Championships Nov. 14 at the Gloucester County DREAM Park here.
The Chiefs placed its five scoring runners among the top 16 finishers for a 48-point total to best a field of 14 teams in Group 4. Cherokee averaged 16:47 and had a 41-second split between its first and fifth finishers. Cherry Hill East and Southern Regional were second and third, respectively, each with a score of 63.
“We could not be happier with how the team ran at sectionals,” said Cherokee coach Jeffrey Thompson.
“Looking at those who were returning, we knew that Cherry Hill East was going to be very tough to beat this season, but I can’t say enough about how focused and determined this group of young men was going back to the spring. They chose to work hard each day, even when circumstances dictated that they couldn’t have the benefit of running with others. That same focus and determination was seen as the race unfolded at sectionals - to a man, they ran smart, not getting pulled out too fast, and then ran the last one-and-a-half to two miles with a lot of grit, passing quite a few runners.”
Senior Nico Grilli was the first runner to cross the finish line for the Chiefs, placing third overall behind Southern Regional senior Jackson Braddock (16:03) and Clearview senior Anas Bensaoud (16:25), in 16:28.
Senior Brett Shea was too far off Grilli’s pace, coming in five seconds later at sixth place in 16:33.
“Nico and Brett have been great leaders for us this year, and they stepped up yet again at sectionals,” said Thompson.
Sophomore Patrick Dimars (16:53) and senior Dylan Odud (16:54) came in together at 11th and 12th place, respectively.
“Brett and Dylan got better every race this season, and were a dry course away from lifetime personal records,” said Thompson. “Patrick really came through for the team, dropping seven seconds off of his PR on a very messy day.”
Sophomore Conor Jacob was 16th out of 102 runners in 17:06, followed by freshman Nick Kuenkel (18th; 17:16) and junior Bradley Popler (36th; 17:44).
Several days of rain, coupled with the fact that the Group 4 boys race was the last of eight on the day, made for a messy, muddy 3.1-mile course at the sectionals.
“Dream Park doesn’t drain too well, so we knew that the course was going to be sloppy,” said Thompson. “We accepted that early in the week, and wanted to have fun in those conditions. The footing deteriorated over the course of the day, and since we were in the eighth of eight races on the course, our times were slowed down a decent amount, but our goal was to race the competition not the watch.”
In a normal year, the Chiefs would be moving on to the state championships. But the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NJSIAA to cancel all competitions beyond the sectional level for safety reasons.
“We’re disappointed to not have the chance to compete against the best Group 4 teams in the state, but we understand the circumstances of the year, and are appreciative of the opportunity we had to represent Cherokee High School at the South Jersey Group 4 Championship and come home with the title,” said Thompson. “Doing so 25 minutes after the girls team won their race made for the perfect day.”
Cherokee other’s South Jersey sectional titles came in 1988 (52 points), 1997 (80), 1998 (61), 1999 (55), 2000 (52), 2007 (52), 2011 (73), 2016 (60) and last year (42).
Shawnee placed sixth in the Group 4 race with 181 points, 16 behind fifth-place Clearview (165).
Junior Alex Campagna (17:26) and senior Robert Birdsall (17:27) came in together at 27th and 28th place, respectively, to lead the Renegades.
Other Shawnee finishers were: senior John Ruona (33rd; 17:39), sophomore Ryan Czechowski (47th; 18:03), freshman Ryan Kaczur (48th; 18:04), senior Dylan Hansen (66th; 19:05) and senior Cooper Grabowski (96th; 21:23).
“Our team competed well,” said Shawnee coach Gary Hill. “Alex Campagna, Ryan Czechowski and Ryan Kaczur were all close to their season best on the course, despite a sloppy and slow course.”
Ruona, Shawnee’s No. 1 runner and one of the six fastest runners on the Dream Park course this season, had a tough time at the sectional race.
“John was sick during the race and thus well off his best of 16:14,” said Hill. “Robert Birdsall, our No. 2 runner all season, had a solid race overall.”
Hill was pleased with his team’s sixth-place finish, adding “Our Varsity runners had a very good season overall.”
Shawnee felt fortunate just to be in attendance at this year’s sectional meet.
“We were happy to be able to race,” said Hill. “A few of our runners had been quarantined, but eligible to race at sectionals. Our school was closed too, which resulted in no team workouts for the two weeks (Nov. 3-13) before the race. That’s just how things are this season. We were very appreciative the Olympic Conference made a great effort to get us four races at Dream Park before the sectional championships.”
Lenape placed 10th out of 14 Group 4 teams with 272 points at the sectional championships.
Sophomore Colin Hermack was the top finisher for the Indians, placing 22nd overall in 17:29.
“It was good competition, Group 4 is always tough,” said Lenape coach Gerald Richardson. “We have run better, but the (sloppy course) conditions were the same for everyone.”
Finishing behind Hermack for the Indians were: junior Jake Buniva (49th; 18:05), junior John Reilly (50th; 18:05), junior Nick Volpe (76th; 19:33), junior Tyler Walters (82nd; 19:54) and sophomore Andrew Dove (84th; 19:56).
Richardson believes the decision to cancel the state championships this season due to the pandemic is the right one.
“It is unfortunate for the athletes, but it is the best decision for the safety of everyone involved,” said Richardson. “I feel bad for Cherokee’s boys and girls teams not able to compete for a state title.”
The Indians will be able to build on the experience they gained this season in 2021.
“We only lose one from our top seven runners, so we will have a strong core coming back next year,” said Richardson.
Seneca placed 14th (371 points) in the Group 3 race at the sectional championships.
Highland, led by individual champion – senior Cole Wassell (16:06), placed five runners among the top 16 finishers for the team title with 47 points.
Senior Kenny Stout was the first finisher for the Golden Eagles, placing 54th out of 102 runners in 19:33.
Other finishers for coach Scott Minuto were: senior Jimmy Demetrios (69th; 20:22), sophomore Justin Schmied (71st; 20:27), junior Colby Welusz (87th; 21:29) and sophomore Maxwell Friedman (101st; 26:48).