Forty-six years ago, many of the top boys runners in the state toed the line at Ocean County Park in Lakewood on a frigid Wednesday afternoon to race each other.
The top 10 runners from each of the seven Group Championship races (Groups 1, 2, 3, 4, and Parochial A, B, and C) all qualified to run, but for some reason 20 of the 70 runners didn't bother to show up.
The race, held on Nov. 22, 1972, was called the Meet of Champions, the first of its kind in NJ cross-country history. The girls M of C also made its debut in 1972 with a race at Holmdel Park.
This Saturday, approximately 180 boys and 180 girls will take the line when the M of C celebrates its 47th anniversary at Holmdel Park.
The meet has come a long way since its inception.
''It seemed like just another meet at the time,'' said current Shore Regional coach Mel Ullmeyer, 10th in the inaugural race when he ran for Raritan High. ``We really didn't know what to make of it back then. There probably weren't more than 150 people or so there to watch. It's certainly not like it is now with hundreds of people lining the course and people running all over the place to see the race.''
(The top finishers from the 1972 race are pictured here, images courtesy of Harry Kronick)
Ever since that bitterly cold day 46 years ago with a wind chill in the teens, the Meet of Champions has become one of the biggest high school spoting events in the state.
Alumni from all over New Jersey come back to the M of C every year, creating a homecoming type atmosphere for past runners, and packed crowds of well over a thousand run all over the course and form a huge line down the final straightaway to watch the runners finish.
''It's amazing just how big it is now,'' said Ullmeyer.
The first M of C boys race, which didn't keep team scores, produced an instant classic when senior Harry Kronick of Franklin won a thriller over the late Greg ''Bucky'' Miller of Northern Highlands, 12:22.0 to 12:20.1. The photo at the top of this page shows the dramatic finish.
''The other thing that I recall about the race itself was that Tom Volz, my coach, who was a terrific strategist, decided I should floor it with a quarter mile to go. While walking the course before the race, we had marked where we thought the quarter pole was. After the race, we found out it was actually 660 yards out from the finish. So I kept wondering why someone seemed to be pulling the finish line away from me!''
Kronick said a loss on the track the previous indoor season helped him.
''In a way, I actually have Chris Inman from Essex Catholic to thank for my victory that day. Back in March of 1972, he and I were in the mile at the NJSIAA Indoor Meet of Champions at Jadwin Gym in Princeton. Vince Cartier from Scotch Plains-Fanwood was the overwhelming favorite, although he didn't even want to be running the event. He qualified in the mile, but wanted to run the two. Officials said no. So Vince was mad that day. I knew that look. He ended up running 4:06.6, which was a new national indoor high school record at the time. I thought I had second place wrapped up. Dave Wall from Dickinson had gone out with Vince through the half (59-2:04) then fallen back. I didn't see Chris at all as I came down the final straightaway. I looked left just one more time about 10 yards from the finish--and never saw Chris come up on my right. We had the same time--4:14.9--but Chris was second and I third. So when Bucky and I came down the stretch, I told myself two things--Don't look for him and run through the finish. You can see in the photo that I'm looking impassively straight ahead as we crossed the finish. By the way, Dave was third and Chris eighth in that race (the 72 XC M of C).''
Kronick said he's always been aware of the significance of his victory, and he's always cherished what it means personally and historically.
``I was always very conscious of the fact that nobody would ever be able to take away the fact that I was the first winner of the Meet of Champions. It meant a lot to me then and does now.''