LOGAN TWP. >> Cherokee ended a memorable shortened season with its second-ever team title in the NJSIAA South Sectional Cross Country Championships Nov. 14 at the Gloucester County DREAM Park here.
The Chiefs placed all five scoring runners among the top 10 finishers for a winning Group 4 total of 24 points, which was easily ahead of Olympic Conference-rival Cherry Hill East (2nd; 61) in the 14-team field, and one of the lowest totals in meet history.
“The way the girls raced (at sectionals) was remarkable,” said Cherokee coach Mark Jarvis, who was an assistant the last time the Chiefs hoisted the sectional championship trophy. “It certainly was nerve racking this last week just hoping that we would be able to race. Having seen some of our sister schools (Lenape and Shawnee) get closed down until Nov. 14 had us on edge knowing that at any minute our season could end. We saw this play out with Kingsway as they found out Nov. 11 that they would not be competing at sectionals. We were very disappointed to hear this as we were looking forward to racing them.”
Cherokee, winners of the Olympic Conference and Burlington County Open as well this season, did not disappoint on the season’s biggest stage, the South Jersey Group 4 championships.
“We have challenged the girls every race this year to go out and make a statement, and they did just that,” said Jarvis. “I was shocked to see they scored 24 points and only had 29 seconds from No. 1 to 5 finishers and just 63 seconds from first through seven runners. To almost have our top 7 finish in the top 15 was crazy.”
Freshman Kerry O’Day had the race of her life as she was second overall in 19:56, which was just five seconds behind individual champion – Cherry Hill East sophomore Alexis Tepper.
Tepper is East’s first individual sectional champion since Lori Watson (17:42) in 1983.
“Kerry had a big race for us,” said Jarvis. “This was the first time that she finished as our No. 1 and ran a really tough race to finish second behind Cherry Hill East’s Alexis Tepper.”
Sophomore Kelsey Niglio was third behind Tepper and O’Day in 20:08, a personal-best time at Dream Park, while Burlington County Open champion, junior Nicole Clifford, was fourth in 20:19.
Freshman Olivia Parkinson was Cherokee’s fourth finisher, placing seventh in 20:24, followed closely by classmate Alaina Bromley in eighth place at 20:26 (lifetime PR).
Junior Noelle Falzone placed 15th overall in a Dream Park course-best 20:49, which equals her lifetime best that she ran at the Burlington County Open.
Freshman Allison Rathman also ran her fastest time at Dream Park of 20:59 (17th place), which equals her lifetime PR that she also ran at this year’s county championships.
Cherokee did all this on a sloppy 3.1-mile course, which had seen several days of rain leading up to the sectional meet.
“We knew going into the race that the course was not going to be in the best shape,” said Jarvis. “Aside from all the rain we had, we were also the second-to-last race (of eight), so we knew it would be pretty tore up by the time the girls got out on it. One plus was the course being on all grass allowed us to wear half-inch spikes. I think the hardest thing about the course was just how waterlogged it was. It was soft and of course a ton of puddles throughout.”
It’s hard not to think how this talented Cherokee would have fared at the state level, which was abandoned this season by the NJSIAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic this fall.
“It was sad to see this be the end of the season, but I know the girls along with (assistant) coach (David) Petruzzi and myself are grateful for the opportunities that we had this fall,” said Jarvis, who is finishing his 17th year as head coach. “It really was like a little return to normalcy every day when we had practice.”
Cherokee is expected to be as good, if not better, in 2021.
“With the amount of youth on this team how can you not be excited for next year,” said Jarvis. “Our top eight runners are all returning and the way they push each other in practice and during races will bode well for this group.”
And it was like a ‘dream’ whenever the Chiefs ran at DREAM Park this season.
“With as much as the team hates racing at Dream Park, this year they really took it in and made this our home course,” said Jarvis. "Having raced on this course three times prior to sectionals helped these girls to know just what it was going to take.”
Jarvis continued: “Coach Petruzzi and I knew that this group was something special after seeing how they approached the summer, then came back in September after our three-week break. I am so happy for them to see the season end the way they all had envisioned it.”
Cherokee’s only other crown at the sectional level came in 2003 under then head coach Chris Tarello, a former standout runner for Shawnee.
Sparked by Lisa Burkholder’s individual title in 18:50, the Chiefs edged out Lenape-district rival Shawnee, 63-64, for their first sectional crown 17 years ago.
Shawnee placed sixth out of 14 teams in the Group 4 field with 178 points, 10 behind fifth-place Southern Regional.
Junior Kyra Birdsall (21:45) and sophomore Sydney Kiernan (21:46) came in together at 28th and 29th place, respectively, in the field of 95 finishers to lead the Renegades.
“Our girls ran hard despite the challenges of coming off a two-week quarantine and one of our varsity runners going down during the race and not being able to finish,” said Shawnee coach Jason Kendall. “The course seemed slower than normal and I think overall times reflected that. We did not have any personal records, but we had solid performances throughout our varsity squad.”
Other Shawnee finishers were: sophomore Jillian Anderson (33rd; 21:58), freshman Nicole Tellechea (40th; 22:15), senior Ashley Olson (48th; 22:49) and junior Madison Kovelski (54th; 23:19).
“We knew going into the season that sectionals would be our last meet, so from a training standpoint, (Nov. 14) was the big day we were preparing for all season. We were unlucky with how some things played out prior to and during the meet, but I’m happy we were still able to race, and I’m very proud of the girls for their efforts at the sectionals and throughout the season. We’re looking forward to next year and we should have a strong team since six of our varsity runners will be returning.”
Seneca placed seventh out of 10 teams in the Group 3 field with 192 points, eight ahead of eighth-place Gloucester City.
Senior Emma Daniels was the first to cross the finish line for the Golden Eagles with her 32nd-place time of 23:22.
“Our girls did OK considering what teams we were up against,” said Seneca coach Chad Devino. “All the girls on our young team PRed at Dream Park. They ran their hearts out.”
Freshman Loralyn Balint was the team’s second finisher, coming in at 24:40, good for 42nd place out of 76 finishers. “Loralyn Balint improved her time by 30 seconds since the (season’s) first race,” Devino pointed out. “I cannot wait to see what she does in the future.”
Seneca’s race was the third of the eight scheduled on the day and the course - already soaked from several consecutive days of rain leading up to the sectionals - was starting to show its use.
“The course was in terrible shape,” said Devino. “Dream Park tends to get eaten up after big rain storms and it doesn’t help after multiple races.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NJSIAA determined there would be no state championships or Meet of Champions this fall. So instead of the sectionals starting the state championship part of the season, it marked the conclusion this year.
“I am upset that there is no Holmdel Park (site of state competition) after sectionals,” said Devino. “Huge bummer, but I am glad that there was a season - especially for the seniors.”
As for prospects in 2021, Devino said: “Seneca is in a rebuild. Our younger athletes show a lot of potential.”
Lenape did not figure in the team scoring at this year’s South Jersey Group 4 championships as only four runners finished the race. By rule, a cross country team consists of a minimum of five runners.
Senior Nicole Fricken was the first finisher for Lenape, coming in 59th overall in 23:34.
Other Lenape finishers were: junior Grace Boltz (68th; 23:57), senior Anna Ruley (72nd; 24:36) and Lauren Soutar (91st; 26:68).