Runners making their debut in the winner's circle was very nearly a unanimous theme at the Essex County Championships on Friday afternoon at Brookdale Park in Bloomfield.
Livingston senior Philmon Mehari and Montclair senior Evelyn Battleson-Gunkel both captured their first major individual cross country titles, and the Seton Hall Prep boys team came all the way back from sixth place last season to claim its first title in 15 years. Only the Montclair girls were experienced champions, capturing their second straight county title.
Seton Hall Prep, which had only two runners clock under 17 minutes last season, had five under that barrier this time and all five finished in the top 16 as the Pirates averaged 16:19.1, beat runner-up Montclair 42-95 and captured their first county title since 2004.
"This has been a perfect storm," said Seton Hall senior Colin Schweitzer, second in 15:52.1. "In past years we've been plagued with injuries and unfortunate accidents. This year we had the perfect mix of talent, team commitment, and love between everyone here. Everyone saw this trophy for six months. From the three months over the summer and up until now, we saw this trophy in our heads, and we're finally here."
Also for Prep, junior Kevin Harvey placed fourth (15:57.7), senior Nolan Orr was eighth (16:08.5), junior Chris Gizzo was 12th (16:46.1) and sophomore Ben Ferrara was 16th (16:51.0). Gizzo was 46th in this race last season, and Ferrara turned in a 10-second PR; it was, in fact, his first 5K under 17 minutes.
Livingston's Mehari, the boys individual champion who won comfortably in 15:30.5, was second in this race last fall and enjoyed a six-second PR at Brookdale. It was his second title of the season; he won his second straight Super Essex Conference - American Division title last month.
The Montclair girls swept the individual and team honors. Battleson-Gunkel, enjoying her first cross-country season, won her first county title in 18:56.1 a month after winning the SEC American Division title. Battleson-Gunkel recently committed to the University of Chicago.
Montclair pushed four runners into the top six to average 19:50.5 and rolled to a 30-93 triumph over runner-up Columbia. Montclair snapped Millburn's five-year winning streak last season and now has a two-year title streak of its own.
After Battleson-Gunkel, junior Krisantha Spencer placed third (19:38.7) for the Mounties, junior Lily Johnston was fifth (19:57.5), junior Violet Ross was sixth (19:57.8) and freshman Ede Koehlert was 15th (20:42.0).