Jackson Braddock was running out of time, and his chances of winning the biggest title of his life were seemingly slipping away.
So the junior at Southern Regional, who was five seconds behind state champion Shaw Powell of Christian Brothers Academy in the late stages of the boys race at Thursday's Shore Conference Championships, had a decision to make.
Either let the pain he was feeling from the fast early pace (4:43 first mile) get the best of him and settle for second place, or not listen to his body and push himself harder than he ever has before and make a run at Powell.
Braddock, one of the biggest breakout stars in the state this season, chose to challenge himself and test his limits, digging down deep and making a huge surge to finally reel in Powell while going up the small climb just before the final straightaway. After grabbing the lead, Braddock hammered his way across the finish line at Ocean County Park in Lakewood, stopping the clock with a big PR of 15:07 as he became the first boy from Southern to ever win the Shore Conference XC title.
Powell, the Non-Public A state champ last year and the Monmouth County winner last week, was second in 15:13.
"My thought process was that he's a great runner and was going to be hard to catch, and I knew it was going to hurt whether I finished first or second, so I just figured I'd feel a little better if I got first,'' said Braddock, who ran 15:40 to win the Ocean County title last week at OCP. "So I just went for it. I kind of went for broke. I thought it might work or might not, so I just went for it. I believed I could win, but I needed to get my legs to believe it. I knew it would take everything I had to win.''
The other three conference titles were captured by the overwhelming favorites.
Sophomore Lilly Shapiro of Colts Neck, in her first year of XC after giving up soccer, continued her remarkable rookie season when she used her lethal kick over the final 400 meters to break away from a huge lead pack to win the girls race by four seconds in 18:03. Shapiro also won the Monmouth County title last week.
The team titles went to NJ#1 Christian Brothers Academy and the NJ# 3 Middletown South girls, who were both coming off Monmouth County championships last week.
CBA extended its remarkable streak to 13 straight championships and raised its astounding record to 36 titles overall with a 26-118 victory over runner-up a very impressive Manalapan squad. This has to be the highest finish ever for Manalapan!
CBA put seven runners across the line before any other team had two runners finish as the Colts crammed its seven runners in the top 15, and averaged 15:35.
Powell and senior Troy Hill, third in 15:16, led the way for coach Sean McCafferty's Colts. CBA's other scorers were senior Tim Cahill, sixth in 15:41, junior Ben Santos, seventh in 15:44, and rising freshman star Nicholas Sullivan was 11th in a CBA freshman course record 16:03!
In the girls team race, Middletown South, the 2017 champion, won its second title ever by outscoring runner-up and NJ#6 Colts Neck, 65-92. NJ#10 Red Bank Catholic finished third with 102, and defending champion Holmdel placed fourth with 129.
Middletown South wasn't ranked in the preseason, but the infusion of lots of great young talent has jelled much quicker than expected for the Eagles, which has just one senior in its top seven.
Leading the youth movement up front for Middletown South was the potent 1-2 combination of sophomore Lucy Afanasewicz and rising freshman star Reese Fahys, who finished 2-3 with identical 18:07 times to help Middletown South average 18:48, No. 2 in school history at OCP.
Middletown South also received strong races from the back of its pack. Freshman Lauren Huston was 22nd in 19:12, sophomore Lexi Dean finished 23rd in 19:18, and senior Michelle Coyotl was 24th in 19:20.
Middletown South coach Bill Clifton knew he had a team loaded with great young talent that had the potential to build into something special, but he never imagined it would all come together so quickly.
"We definitely saw how much talent these girls had, but we never expected them to all be this good this soon,'' said Clifton. "I've just been blown away by how they've been racing, and for so many young runners to have so much competitiveness is really amazing.''
The big head-snapping moment when everyone in the state took notice of how good Middletown South was came when the Eagles won its race at the Manhattan Invitational earlier this month and finished well ahead of several ranked teams in the New Jersey team merge.
"That really opened my eyes and their eyes,'' said Clifton. "After that race we all kind of knew that this team was capable of doing some big things this season, and they've just keep getting better and better and have embraced the hard work it takes to be a great team.''