This spring we at NJ MileSplit have begun a series with veteran coaches to ask about their best memories of NJ high school cross-country and track and field.
Previously, Ridge's Tim Mooney and Rumson's Tim McLoone dipped into their memory banks to dig up what they considered to be some of the top moments they've witnessed from NJ athletes.
Now it's Justina Cassavell's turn on the hot seat.
Justina, a 1987 graduate of Hunterdon Central and a '91 graduate of Rutgers, made a name for herself in NJ as the Voorhees girls cross-country and track coach from 1997-2012, when she led the team to three cross-country Meet of Champions titles (2007-08, '12) and to an '07 appearance in the Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Ore. Her cross-country teams won nine Skyland Conference titles, 13 sectional titles and nine group titles. Her XC teams qualified for the MOCs every season.
Since 2014 Justina has been the head coach of the Ramapo College men's and women's cross-country and track and field programs. Under Justina's tutelage in the spring of 2018, Clifton grad Jeremy Hernandez became the first Division 3 athlete to run a sub-4 mile when he ran 3:59.01 at Boston University.
Without further ado, here's Justina's top three NJ memories:
1 - North Hunterdon's Jodie Bilotta wins 800-1600-3200 at 1988 MOCs
Jodie Bilotta, one of the legends of NJ running, was no stranger to the headlines when she attempted a distance triple at the 1988 outdoor Meet of Champions. She had won three straight 3200m titles and two straight 1600s leading into the '88 meet.
Bilotta made history that spring by winning the 1600m in 5:00.7, then her only 800m title in 2:11.16, and finally her fourth straight 3200m in 10:24.18. She is the only NJ athlete to accomplish this feat. No one has attempted it since. Bilotta is one of only six girls to win four MOCs titles in a single event, and the only one to win four 3200s.
"I was just a year out of high school when Jodie won all three so I was still keeping up with high school track," Justina said. "I just remember how stunning it was. I don't remember anyone else doing that. And running 10:24 coming off the half mile is tough; that time is mind-boggling.
"Most of the time no one does even two events anymore. Back in the 80s, we didn't have the outdoor national championship so maybe she didn't have to save herself. But it's not like she had these average times and won. All three times are fantastic."
2 - Melanie Thompson and Ajee' Wilson 1-2 in 2009 MOCs 1600m
Of course, Justina was watching Melanie Thompson closely, since the Voorhees junior was a budding star under her watch. Thompson won her first of two XC MOCs titles the previous fall and won the indoor MOCs 3200m that winter. And on that day, Thomspon won the 1600m in a meet-record 4:46.28.
But just as amazing to Justina was the talent of Neptune freshman Ajee' Wilson, who would go on to run the 800m for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team in Rio. Wilson finished second to Thomson that day by .56 seconds.
As an added note, the race itself was a thrilling three-horse show. Thompson, Wilson and Roxbury senior Ariann Neutts (third in 4:46.95) were separated by just .67 seconds.
"I definitely remember watching that race and thinking how talented she (Ajee') was and wondering how good she will become," Justina said. "I remember being stunned how smooth she was. I thought to myself, sometimes you see this level of talent, and this girl could be something else. Her running style took me aback."
3 - Joe and Jim Rosa finish 1-2 in the 2010 national two-mile
For Justina, it wasn't so much that the Rosa brothers from West Windsor-Plainsboro North finished 1-2 in the New Balance Outdoor Nationals two-mile race, because their reputations preceded them going into the meet. Rather, it was how they did it.
"I was on the turn at 350, close to the track, and Joe was winning with a comfortable lead and Jim was battling someone else for second place," Justina said. "That's when I heard Joe turn around and yell to his brother, 'LET'S GO!'
"How cool is that, that he turned around and encouraged his brother, and Jim really went hard after that. To me it was unbelievable, because it was such an intense race and the fact that he had the presence of mind to help his brother. I thought that was pretty special."
Joe won in 8:44.06, the junior class meet record, and Jim placed second in 8:51.46. Later in the meet the twins helped West Windsor North place third in the distance medley relay in 9:59.07.
It's good to mention here that the 2010 national meet was a superb meet for the Garden Staters. The Haddonfield boys won the 4xMile relay, Mark Jones of Summit won the high jump and Kaleb Zuidema of Midland Park won the javelin. On the girls side, Columbia won the 4x100 and 800 sprint medley relay, and Neptune, with Ajee' Wilson on anchor, won the 1600 SMR (with Sparta and Columbia going 2-3).