Several veteran cross-country observers have weighed in on exactly what it takes to win three straight team titles at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions.
Some said talent, others said coaching, and still others said having a little luck avoiding the injury and illness bug.
Apparently it takes all three factors - and more - to enjoy that kind of sustained success, and the North Hunterdon girls were the benefactors of such fortune at the 48th M of C on Saturday at Holmdel Park.
Led by senior and individual champion Chloe Gonzalez, the Lions staved off a huge scare from Ridgewood and made state history by winning their third straight team title and state record-tying ninth overall with the third-lowest team average in course history.
"They were thinking about history, but the girls were also out to prove that last year's turnover wouldn't stop them from continuing the legacy," said North Hunterdon coach Sean Walsh.
"Coming to the Meet of Champs, it's so nerve-racking that it doesn't matter who's favored. When teenage girls step on that starting line, it's a tough thing mentally to handle. If I feel like I'm gonna throw up at the mile mark, I can imagine how they feel."
North Hunterdon tied Red Bank Catholic for the most M of C titles with nine, and North also joined RBC as the only girls programs to win at least three straight M of C titles twice. RBC won the first five titles beginning in 1972, North won from 1983 through '87, and RBC won three in a row in 1994, '95 and '96.
"We have a great sense of unity and it's great to be a part of this team," said North Hunterdon junior Magdalyn Hoffman. "I don't know if we were thinking about history. We just ran the best we could."
North Hunterdon defeated Bergen County powerhouse Ridgewood 65-78, while Middletown South, with their incredibly young lineup featuring freshman Reese Fahys (fifth, 18:41), was third with 134. Group 2 runner-up Haddonfield had 172 points to place fourth, that program's best finish at the M of C.
Ridgewood, which entered the Group 4 race last week ranked No. 1 in the state, finished second to North Hunterdon, 41-76. To their credit, the Maroons made it a much closer meet with North this time around because their top five runners all ran faster than last week, to an average of a whopping 24 seconds per runner. Last week Ridgewood averaged 19:36.21, and on Saturday it lowered that to 19:18.40.
History was everywhere for North Hunterdon yesterday. In addition to all the team accomplishments, Gonzalez won the individual title in 17:56 and became the first North Hunterdon girl in 32 years to claim an M of C title. Jodie Bilotta won her third straight title in 1987.
Gonzalez, always a team-first runner, was also the only North girl to score in all three M of Cs the last three years.
"At the finish line, I wasn't thinking about history or anything like that," Gonzalez said. "I was looking for Maggie, wondering where's the rest of my team. That was my first reaction."
With Gonzalez and Hoffman leading the way, the Lions averaged 19:02.6, the third fastest in course history. The top two times belong to Voorhees. The course record is 19:00.50 set by Voorhees in the 2008 M of C, and next is the 19:01.12 set by the Glen Gardner school in the 2012 M of C.
"We definitely had a very blessed season," Hoffman said. "We put in the training, our coaches have been very consistent in getting us to keep going, and injuries have been very minimal, which has been a blessing."
To further illustrate just how difficult it is to win three straight M of C team titles, just look at recent history. Since Red Bank Catholic's three-peat in the mid-1990s, five teams have won two straight and failed to add a third.
They are Shawnee (2002-03, did not qualify for the M of C in 2004), Roxbury (2004-05, fourth in '06), Voorhees (2007-08, ninth in '09), Hillsborough (2009-10, second in 2011), and Ridge (2015-16, 12th in 2017).
"I think the coaching has gotten so much better because we're sharing ideas, and there's a lot more information out there," Hillsborough coach Rich Refi said. "It used to be you hoped you knew someone who knew something about a team."
Among those five teams, Hillsborough came the closest to pulling off a three-peat, finishing second in 2011 to Rumson, 126-142.
"They forgot what got them there," Refi said of his second-place team. "They weren't doing the extra little things that we had done in the past. They expected to be handed the trophy."
Ridge coach Tim Mooney has guided his team to two titles as well as eight top six finishes since 2003, including a one-point loss to Voorhees in 2008.
Mooney said one of the biggest obstacles to winning a title, let alone three straight, was gaining an understanding of how to keep runners healthy.
"That's the hardest thing, and it's an ongoing battle, especially with high school kids," Mooney said. "Do they train too hard? Train too little? And it goes on and on, trying to figure out those issues.
"At the same time you have to give credit to a team like North where there's a program established and new kids are coming in and willing to work at that same level. So you can debate which one is bigger. I don't think that really matters. I think both things have to be in place."