The combining of the teams was a move in the making over the past few seasons. The boys team had three different head coaches in the past four years, so having the two teams merge was implemented in part to add coaching stability for runners of both genders; if one coach left, continuity would not be affected.
“One of the big things about coaching is that continuity matters,” said Head Coach James Smirk, who was the head coach of the girls cross country team for the past ten seasons. “The boys team going through three coaches in four years was a really quick turnaround.”
This year, the team will be without four-year boys Head Coach Mark Shelly, who cannot coach because of his new position as the humanities supervisor at Princeton High School.
In addition to the combining of the boys and girls teams, the program has built up the coaching staff. Smirk and Mary Johnson are returning coaches who held the reigns of the girls team in years past. Marc Bloom, who was previously a coach at Hillsborough High School, will spend his first season at PHS as the head of the Freshman Academy, a new program within the team that focuses on the development of freshman runners for the future. Dr. Robert Nelson, a former cross country coach at John Witherspoon Middle School, will spend his first season as a PHS coach working with the male runners. Furthermore, Sarah Chen will serve as a trainer for strength and conditioning.
“It is really easy to create a new coaching staff when the people are talented and knowledgeable,” Smirk said. “They are all instrumental in the development of the team’s runners and identity.”
Becoming one team was a major change for the runners. When the move was announced, runners of both genders had mixed emotions.
“At first I didn’t like the idea of the change because we were such a tight-knit group of girls,” said Chloe Taylor ’18. “Now, I am still running and bonding with the same people, but I am also getting closer with the boys. It is a nice and interesting change.”
“It’s been kind of tough for a lot of us because we have been separate from the girls for such a long time,” said Alex Roth ’17. “It’s change, and change is always tough, but it’s something that will benefit us in the future.”
The joined team has brought on significant logistical changes. When Smirk took over as the girls coach ten years ago, the team had nine runners. Now, the boys and girls make up a team of 86. With more runners comes more leadership. The team has a leadership core made of captains from both genders.
“The most important thing about this team is that these runners are good kids,” said Nelson. “They are responsible, mature, and disciplined.”
As the team continues into the heart of the season, the dynamic between the girls and boys will play a large role in the success of the program. The team will compete in the Central Jersey, Group 4 bracket this season.
“I think the boys and girls meld in a very cohesive way,” Bloom said. “It is really nice when boys and girls support each other.”