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Chloe Gonzalez was facing the prospect of wearing a huge target on her back for an entire 3.1-mile championship race and possibly wiping out a three decades-long title drought for her school when she toed the starting line at Holmdel Park on Saturday.
And, surprising to no one, the North Hunterdon senior never buckled under those incredibly heavy burdens.
Gonzalez bolted to the front in the first 100 yards and never looked back, eventually building a 23-second lead en route to crossing the line in 17:56 and claiming the NJSIAA girls cross-country Meet of Champions title, the school's first such individual title in 32 years.
Gonzalez, who also led the Lions to their third straight team title, joined New Jersey legend Jodie Bilotta as her school's only M of C winners. Bilotta won three straight titles in 1985, '86 and '87 before starring at Stanford.
"I'll have to take a moment to sit back and realize what happened," said Gonzalez, who will carry her considerable talent to Georgetown next fall. "I've heard about Jodie and read about her, and it's super cool and really amazing to be mentioned with her."
"Honestly it's a little weird to think about. I'm at the point in my racing where things are expected and I really love doing well, but I'm never sure something is going to happen, so when it does happen it's super exciting and a little crazy."
Jodie D'Ariano (nee Bilotta) was excited to hear that Gonzalez brought the individual hardware back to Annandale.
"Tell Chloe congratulations for me. I know how competitive New Jersey cross-country is," said the former North Hunterdon star, now married and a mother of three living in West Chester, Pa. "For Chloe to win and the team as well, that's as good as it gets. It also speaks to the quality of the program.
"When I was in high school, North Hunterdon had such a long tradition of success. Strong individuals and strong teams. There were so many good runners at North Hunterdon. And like everything else, things are cyclical. They've had some really good teams and good runners but never a Meet of Champions winner. I couldn't be more thrilled for Chloe."
With her winning time, Gonzalez is now one of only six NJ runners who have chalked two sub-18 minute Holmdel times in the same season, joining the likes of NJ legend Janet Smith of J.P. Stevens (1983), Melanie Thompson of Voorhees (2008), Chelsea Ley of Kingsway (2008), Megan Venables of Highland Regional (2010), and Abby Loveys of Randolph (2018). Venables set the NJ course record of 17:28 in the 2010 Group 3 meet.
And Gonzalez got her blazing time running alone. Montgomery sophomore Caroline Mehlhorn finished second in 18:19, Pingry senior and Columbia commit Nicole Vanasse was third in 18:26 and Voorhees senior Emma McGill was fourth in 18:41.
That's a remarkable 1-2-3-4 finish for the Skyland Conference. And when you figure in Skyland's fifth runner, North Hunterdon junior Magdalyn Hoffman, who finished seventh overall in 18:57, that makes for a smoking five-runner average of 18:27.
Hoffman was 16 seconds away from fifth place and giving the Skyland Conference a perfect score of 15 points. Skyland runners whipped the M of C field, scoring 17 points while the Shore Conference was second with 62 and the Big North Conference was third with 70.
"Of course the Skyland Conference going 1-2-3-4 is shocking because the state has a lot of talent," Vanasse said. "But I do know that all the Skyland Conference girls are really strong and great competitors. The Skyland Conference Championship is one of those races where you have to get hyped up before the race, just like the Meet of Champs, because the talent is so deep."
"It is so tough to run in the Skyland Conference," McGill said. "Our conference meet is at Phillipsburg and that's a thousand times tougher than this course. And having that super-competitive racing gets us ready for state. I think our conference is really competitive and it's cool to be a part of what we did today."
Gonzalez's Holmdel personal best is the 17:45 -- tied for sixth all-time at Holmdel -- which she ran at the Shore Coaches Invitational in October. She said she may have aimed for Venables' NJ course record if a few runners had challenged her to find another gear.
But settling for an M of C title in her final jaunt on the NJ trails was quite a consolation prize.
"I was hoping to have a few more people run with me, pushing me and getting me to that next level, but I went into this race knowing what I wanted for my team and myself, so I was just running," Gonzalez said.
"This morning I was thinking, Oh my god, this is my last race at Holmdel. It's a little weird and really sad. I'm happy with the way it ended but it's bittersweet for sure."
North Hunterdon coach Sean Walsh summed up what Gonzalez has meant to the Lions program.
"Forget about running -- the positivity she brings to the girls is huge," Walsh said. "She's a good kid, she's fun, outgoing, she works really hard and backs up her words. She's a well-rounded person, and probably more mature than her years."