The girls cross country team looks to the new season with optimism, powered by the motivation to compete with last year’s 12–1 season. The preparation for the 2014 season included attendance at Bennett Running Camp, a camp experience in which part of the team spent a week getting in shape, gaining inspiration from college and professional athletes, and bonding with each other and teams from all around the state. Head Coach Jim Smirk is hoping the team’s developing chemistry will help feed its projected goals of winning Sectionals and qualifying for the Meet of Champions.
The camp was organized by Chris Bennett, current Nike NYC Running Head Coach and former assistant coach for the Christian Brothers Academy cross country team, which is currently ranked first in the nation.
Lou Mialhe ’16, who aims to race a 5k in under 19 minutes this year, feels that attending Bennett Camp has prepared her well for the upcoming season.
“We did two runs a day. The first one would be at seven in the morning, which would usually be a fast [paced] one … [and] the afternoon run would be a short 20 minute run just to cool down,” said Mialhe. The athletes also had the option of pool running in the afternoon. “[The layout of the camp] definitely helped us out on hill training, which is really important.”
The layout of Camp Bennett was very similar to the layout of some of the courses that the team will run this year.
“Our championship course for Meet of Champs and States is a course which is known for its hills, so I think the training at Bennett [Camp] is going to be really beneficial,” said Co-Captain Paige Metzheiser ’15.
“[The camp] gave them a week where they could run together with really talented athletes above and beyond their own team,” said Smirk. Running with individuals faster than themselves encouraged the team to pick up its pace during runs.
Smirk also thinks that the team began to build a new understanding of work ethic that is beyond its physical gains.
“This other piece they brought back from Bennett is the idea that if you really want to take a shot at it, if you really want to do something special on a team, [then] the level of commitment is different than what people expect when they come out,” said Smirk.
“Coming back from Bennett, we also brought a lot of what we learned to [the rest of] our team. We’re not running anymore as a group of five but a group of ten, and the [younger] girls who run up with us one day will carry what we taught them to the girls below,” said Metzheiser.
The girls look back to previous years to understand the mistakes and recognize what they can improve on. According to Co-Captain Mary Sutton ’15, the chemistry of the runners is vital because it’s primarily what keeps motivation going during races.
“We’re all juniors and seniors [in the top five] so we have experience [on our side], and our goal is to have the space between [the first runner and the last runner] be as low as possible, so we’re trying to all cross the finish line together,” said Mialhe. “We’re going to try to run as a pack.” In cross country races, the scores of the top five runners determine the rank of the team, so it is important that the runners place as low and as close together as possible.
“We’re pretty close as teammates but [also] as friends. We all love each other so much; they’re my sisters,” said Sutton. “[When running in a meet] you see this girl right next to you just in the same boat [as] you—struggling or even doing better than you—[you] just knowing that she is there helping you out and you’re helping her is a comforting feeling,” said Sutton.
Smirk’s desire for a season even better than the last is contagious among the team.
“We were ninth last year in the state group meet; I think with [our] talent, we have a legitimate shot at winning the Group III State Championship,” said Smirk. Based on returning times, the team is currently ranked third in its Group. Additionally, the Star Ledger has ranked the Princeton girls tenth overall in the state for the past two weeks.
“This year, [as a team], we’re trying to qualify for Meet of Champs,” said Mialhe, “I think it’s doable but we’re going to have to work pretty hard.” The top three teams at each NJSIAA Group State Championship and two wild card teams get the opportunity to run in the Meet of Champions at the end of the year, a meet that pits all of the state’s fastest runners against each other in one race.
The athletes hope that their efforts to improve their team dynamic, continued work on hills, and experience at Bennett Camp, will help them achieve these successes.
“You never really know until you get to the end of the season and you step on the line what’s going to happen,” said Smirk, “but I trust in our veterans.”