Salute To Seniors is a medium for "senior farewells". We invite this year's seniors to tell their stories from the past four years. With the loss of the spring season we hope we can offer a chance to reflect on all the great moments this class did get to experience.
The series will run into the summer. Please note that there is a queue of submissions that keeps growing so there may be a wait until final publishing, but we will get to your piece.
What was your most memorable race?
Winning Sectionals in Cross Country my Junior year. I had never won a big race before, and this was a very rewarding moment for me. Everything is more exciting when you have a team like Westfield supporting you, because in addition to the 7 guys running the race, we have coaches, families, teammates, alumni, and friends cheering us on.
The spirit that Westfield brings to meets during state championship season is very special. There's nothing better than giving it everything that you have during a race, while seeing everyone painted blue, running around the course to cheer you on. I definitely owe a lot of credit to the "8th man", as we call our cheering section. I couldn't have done it without them, and more importantly, we couldn't have captured the team win without them!
Overall, I think the greatest lesson from this win lies in the journey that led up to it. When I was a sophomore, I was a part of the "8th man", as an alternate at Sectionals. Nobody would predict that a kid who wasn't in his team's top 7 a year before would win the race a year later. Achieving this required me to commit myself to the sport every day, getting better little by little, and trusting the process.
It doesn't matter what anyone thinks or predicts. If you dedicate yourself to a goal, no matter how unattainable it seems to others, you can achieve it if you work for it. It took a long time for me to get to that level, but the feeling of winning was so incredible. I made it my goal to come back and defend my title senior year, and I am very thankful and proud to have done that as well. Coming down that homestretch at Greystone Park in first place, with the W on my chest, was simply amazing. Look out for many more Blue Devils who are on their way to doing the same.
Who would you consider your biggest competition over your four years?
I have improved a lot over the past 4 years while not comparing myself and my process to others. If you keep your focus on doing everything that you can to improve yourself every day, you and your teammates will be thankful for it. That being said, I have had some incredible competitors over the years, and I am very thankful for the opportunity to have gone to battle with all of them.
My fellas from Westfield challenged me every day, but if you know anything about the Blue Devils, you know that we don't race against each other, we race with each other. In Union County alone, the competition from Scotch Plains, Summit, and Union Catholic has been very exciting. Brandon Garcia and Ben Fleishcer from Scotch Plains were quite the duo to compete against, and we had a lot of fun racing them. Hats off to Ben on the 2019 Outdoor Sectional win in the 3200m. One of my favorite races I've ever run, I gave it all I had in that homestretch but he took it! That was an awesome day. Also, from Summit, Jacob Pantoya has always been a great competitor, and I'm definitely upset that we didn't have the chance to go to battle at Counties in the mile this year. Jacob is a fantastic athlete and it was always fun to take the line against him.
Speaking of the mile, I always had some lightning fast competition coming from Union Catholic with Myles Plummer. Indoors at the 2019 Union County Championship he took the win, but I remember looking forward to the Conference meet that outdoor season to take it back. I had to show the Freshman what was up, but I am very impressed with Myles, and he has a lot to look forward to. Disappointed that we couldn't make more memories on the track this year, and I wish all of Union County the best.
In addition to these great battles in our county, taking on competition from around the state and region has also been an honor. I am very thankful to have competed against some of the best runners in the state, including opportunities to race against other great programs such as CBA, Haddonfield, and Cherokee. In our State Section, we always had our hands full with Ridge and North Hunterdon, and I look forward to seeing these great Sectional battles continue. Ryan Lindrud and Jackson Barna gave me all I could handle at XC Sectionals my junior and senior year. Taking the win both years against competition like them was absolutely an honor. Ryan is one of the most fearless runners I have ever seen, and Jackson is only getting started.
From North Hunterdon, Gavin Richards and John Ignacz have been great competitors all 4 years. Westfield has really appreciated the rivalry with North, they are truly the real deal. And I can't leave out Andrew Trapp, another legend from North Hunterdon, who I will be joining next year in Boston! I will definitely be back to watch the great tradition of NJ XCTF continue, especially the tradition of the Blue Devils.
What was your personal greatest accomplishment?
Being a Captain for Westfield. There is nothing more important to me than guiding the younger guys on the team, and leading by example. Westfield Cross Country is one of the largest high school cross country programs in the state, and the nation. Not many teams can say that they have a freshman class of 31 boys running cross country, but that was the case here in Westfield during my senior year. For myself and my fellow seniors, this truly was a gift.
Being a Captain alongside Jack Maranz, Kevin Yucetepe, and Alex Maurillo, was awesome. They are some of my best friends, and it meant a lot to us to be able to connect with all of the freshmen, while they're in the midst of making the transition from middle school to high school. Every guy on the team, no matter how old or young, or how fast or slow, is a part of the family. We're all friends, and I don't know how common that is for other teams, but here in Westfield, it is a crucial piece of our tradition. And I know how important it really is, because I looked up to the upperclassmen when I was a freshman, and with this culture, I was really inspired by them.
Their impact may not be visible to those outside the program, but to name a few, guys like Aditya Singh, Jake Triarsi, Matt Meusel, Spencer Weigand, Stuart Pollock, Ethan Belka, Jack Johnson, Ryan Qin, Ronnie Melao, Daniel Han, Cooper Brennan, and James McCutcheon, and many more, all made huge impacts as leaders for my class, and they deserve to be recognized. I am excited to see what the next generation of Blue Devils accomplishes, and can say that being a Captain on this team was truly an honor.
If you are writing a letter to your younger freshman self, what are some items that might include?
Enjoy every single thing that you do, because you never know when you might not be able to do it anymore. And like everyone says, it really does go by fast. Cherish the time you have with your coaches, teammates, teachers, family, and friends. You are in the good old days.
What were the most difficult obstacles you had to overcome?
Fear. I was definitely afraid at times during my high school career, even after I won sectionals as a Junior. I owe a lot to my Coach, for helping me overcome fear. There was one particular practice this past cross country season where I was pushing a light workout harder than I should, and Coach stopped me to talk. He knew I was nervous about the upcoming state sectional meet which I had won the year before. Even though I had trained every day and was even more prepared this year, I was afraid to lose.
But during this talk, I remember Coach Tafelski telling me very decisively that nobody cares who won last year. It's a new race, it's completely separate, and it should not pressure me to win again. He told me to go into this race like every other race, and do my best to place as high as I can for the team. Race to win, don't race to not lose. It's talks like this that stick out to me as the things that make Coach Tafelski such a great Coach. I went into the race this year feeling excited, and I had a lot of fun taking the line with my boys. Race to win, don't race to not lose.
What will you miss the most?
I'll miss the Blue Devil family here in Westfield. I'll miss all of the practices that always made my day complete. I'll miss the 1.5 mile loops at Tamaques, and the hill sprints at Echo Lake. I'll miss the Double-Barchester loops with the boys, and front-woods back-woods workouts at Holmdel. I'll miss the Shack, the Short Shack, and even the Shack Jeff loop from Kehler, and all the laps we ran on that legendary track.
I'll miss the exhausting long-runs with Will McGlynn, and the Nomahegan loops with Sivaji Turimella. I'll miss running into Conor Daly on runs and telling him to run XC… watch out for that. I'll miss Colman Scanlan giving his medal to the bus driver after a race. I'll miss driving to practice (as well as the beach, diner, and Chili's) with Ben Hacker and Charlie Stock, just promise me that we'll do it again! I had the time of my life, and truly I wouldn't change a single thing about high school if I could do it again. I'm always rooting for you boys, thanks for everything.
What advice would you give to younger upcoming athletes?
You have so many awesome opportunities and experiences ahead of you. Get excited, and enjoy doing all of these things together! Support one another, make goals, stick with them, and have fun with everything along the way. We have four team rules here, and if you follow them, you will be successful.
Be a good citizen. Be here every day. Give your best effort. Contribute.
These team rules are simple, but they aren't always easy. Commit to them and you will be proud of yourself, I guarantee it. When you are no longer one of the younger guys, which will happen sooner than you think, give back to the program by setting a good example and being a friend for everyone on the team. Remember: There's nothing cooler than being a freshman on the first day of school and having seniors shout out in the hallways to say hi to you because you were at summer cross country practice. Be that senior.
What influence has your coach had with respect to your performance and overall life goals?
Coach Tafelski is my biggest influence and mentor with respect to my running and life goals. The commitment he has made to the culture of Westfield XCTF is incredible. He sacrifices a tremendous amount of time for the team, and I often felt bad during my high school career for keeping him at practice so late.
The truth is, he really loves the team, and more than this, the people on it. I never would have gotten to where I am today as a runner or as a person without his coaching or guidance. I owe nearly all of my opportunities and achievements to Coach Tafelski alone. I admire his selflessness, and his priority to make sure that everyone who signs up for this team gets something valuable out of it. I know that I did, and I'm definitely going to miss you Coach.
Name the top New Jersey XCTF moment you have witnessed. Can be by level of greatness or just something that really stood out to you.
It's hard to pick one, but a race I watched that really stood out to me was the 2018 Sectionals 3200m, which Ray Selaro from North Hunterdon won. I was rooting for my Westfield guys, so I was bummed to see Ray win. But I still thought it was so cool when he took the lead during the last lap, and brought it home with a crazy kick. He made it seem so effortless and from that moment on I wanted to do the same.
I ended up coming back a year later at Sectionals and ran the 3200m. I took the lead in the last lap, but Ben Fleischer got me by a step. It was still surreal to be up there in that position that I had watched in awe a year earlier. Thanks to Ray Selaro who definitely inspired me, and I am sure many others, with his winning style.
What are your post-high school or college plans?
I will be attending Boston University and running there… I am super excited… Go Terriers.
Who would you to say 'thank you' to?
Most of all: thank you to Coach Tafelski. The best mentor I could ever ask for, and a great person. I am proud to make you proud Coach.
To Coach Van Deursen: thank you for contributing so much value to our program during the fall, and caring about every single person on the team.
To my Mom, Dad, and sister Olivia: thank you for always supporting me and my crazy goals. I love you.
To Dickens: I love and miss you forever dog. I'll be running for you in Boston, buddy. You're my favorite terrier.
To my extended family: thank you for feeling like you're close even when you're far.
To all the Blue Devil families: thank you for giving each of us a second family, by signing us up for this team. Keep showing up to the meets with that same spirit, support, and delicious cinnamon bread… Thanks Mrs. Givelber!
To the "Friends of Westfield Track": thank you for all that you provide our program with, including the senior banners outside the track this year.
To Tom Klein: thank you for being a true hero for the Blue Devils, and keeping us company for countless practices at Tamaques.
To Ronnie Melao: thank you for being my brother. For every experience on this team, it wouldn't have been the same without you by my side. Thanks for the memories, here's to many more.
To Will McGlynn: thank you for pushing me to my absolute limit on so many runs over the years. We had so many tough runs, completely exhausting each other, but looking back those were some of the most special times of my life. Just remember, where there's a Will, there's a way.
To our legendary alumni: thank you for the high standards. To all of my teammates: thank you for every moment, we had so much fun. I promise to be your teammate forever, love you all.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I'll always have the Westfield Blue Devils in my heart, and I am very excited to watch the great tradition continue. The future of this team is bright! I hope to see you all out there soon.