Jim Schlentz has always been an innovative guy, constantly brainstorming to create ways to make track & field and cross-country more exciting for the athletes, coaches and fans.
So when the longtime coach at Colts Neck saw that the NJSIAA pushed back the starting date for the opening of the XC season until Oct. 1 and eliminated the State Group Championships and Meet of Champions, while many other big meets (such as the Shore Coaches and the Manhattan Invit.) were knocked out for COVID-19 related reasons, the wheels started spinning in his head.
He figured there had to be a way, even with all the restrictions in place, to still have a high-powered meet that would create a lot of buzz in a season starving for excitement and high stakes races.
"When we hit September and I saw our meet schedule was going to be mostly dual meets and tri-meets, I tried to think of something we could do that was special, but small,'' said Schlentz.
So Schlentz came up with the Cougar Invitational Team Challenge, and invited many of the state's top programs to run shoulder-to-shoulder. It's scheduled for Oct. 10 at Bucks Mill Park in Colts Neck. No spectators are permitted.
It has all the makings of the best meet of the season in NJ!
Check out the teams that will be toeing the line.
In the boys race, seven teams ranked in the Top 10 in the state will square off!
The teams are NJ#1 Christian Brothers Academy, NJ#3 Ridge, NJ#4 Cherry Hill East, NJ#7 Colts Neck, NJ#8 Middletown South, NJ#9 Westfield, NJ#10 Summit, and NJ#17 Haddonfield. The winner will most likely finish the season ranked No. 1 in the state.
Talk about a small meet that packs a huge punch! It just doesn't get a whole lot better than this for an invitational that had to be limited to just eight teams.
"We've been waiting months to see the best teams compete against each other, and with only sectionals this year this would be a chance to compete against each other in a small, exciting meet,'' said Schlentz. "It would also be earlier in the season where the Shore Coaches/Manhattan meets would have been. Some early season excitement, something to look forward to after all these months. I can't tell you how excited I am for myself, my kids, and all of the other coaches and athletes from the other teams. Hopefully they are as excited as I am. I am restricted to eight boys and eight girls teams. Hopefully, this will get people talking about it, and get even those not competing excited. We need excitement in a year where there are so little big match-ups to get excited about.'' - Jim Schlentz
What a great job by Schlentz, who is 100 percent right - NJ XC needed something to get excited about it. This is the huge shot in the arm that the sport needed.
All the coaches who are competing are jacked up!
"We are looking forward to having any meet on our schedule, but this one will help us really prep for our season,'' said Middletown South girls coach Bill Clifton. "We love to race against top teams even if we will not be ready yet. The competition will be more important than the result. I appreciate Jim Schlentz's vigor in making this season as best as can be.''
CBA coach Sean McCafferty, who has led the Colts to three straight XC MOCs titles, said his guys are looking forward to the challenge.
"Jim has done a great job putting this together,'' said McCafferty, whose team carries a national record dual meet winning streak of 371 into the season. "We are excited to match up with some good teams and runners.''
Haddonfield boys coach Nick Baker can't wait.
"It will be awesome to finally compete on any level,'' said Baker, whose team brings a dual meet winning streak of 222 straight victories into the season. "To be part of this meet is a great opportunity for our runners that we were not sure we would have.''
RBC coach Rob DeFilippis said this meet could very well be the closest we have this season to a Meet of Champions race.
"It should be a fun day with a chance to see where everyone is at,'' said DeFilippis. "Could very well be the best meet of the year for all of us."
Ridge boys coach Nicole Gilhuley said her pack is eager to show what they can do.
"We are very excited for the chance to compete against these schools,'' said Gilhuley. "Last year we had a lot of success, and we are jumping at any chance to see how we stack up against some of the top teams in the state.''
Westfield boys coach Chris Tafelski said the top teams and runners in the state needed something to look forward to.
"I'm glad Schlentz put this together,'' said Tafelski. "I think the top kids need something big to gear up for,'' said Tafelski.
Summit boys coach Neal Sharma is thankful that his team has the opportunity to race in such a huge meet.
"The Hilltoppers are really excited about this meet,'' said Sharma. "Thankful that our school district and administration are allowing us to compete and travel to the meet. Our top XC kids, both boys and girls, last raced at the indoor MoCs in the 4x800 back on March 8th, and now are chomping at the bit to get out and race again. I don't think any of us will ever take for granted the chance to train and race and compete! Also really grateful to Coach Schlentz for reaching out to us to be included in the field as well as putting in the work to organize the meet. One of the challenges this season will be developing high-quality races with great competition. Jim has always been an athlete-first figure in the sport and always looked to create opportunities to showcase the sport and the kids who work so hard and dedicate so much time to it. Whether it was the Track Show or the sectional course video breakdown, or XCU, Jim is always being innovative. This season is definitely one where in all sports you need creative, problem-solving figures and can't approach it the same way you did in the past if you want to create a meaningful experience for the kids. "We're excited to run on a new course against some of the state's top teams, and are hoping that the great teams and individuals will bring out some stellar performances. We're going to gear up for it and see where we stand about a month out from sectionals.''
Cherry Hill East boys coach Chris Corey said the roller coaster ride that his athletes and all athletes in the state have been on since March has been very emotional, and his team is very excited to have the chance to race against many of the state's elite.
"This season has been a roller coaster of emotions,'' said Corey. "We have been trying to maintain a positive attitude and focus on what's in our control. Successful runners have a knack for routine and consistency, and daily health screenings and personal hygiene are now a regular part of practice. The foundation of our program starts with team and personal goals. We are excited about the teams that have committed and look forward to seeing our guys lineup with some of the best in New Jersey. Colts Necks coach Jim Schlentz has done a great job organizing this meet. Under ordinary circumstances directing a meet can be difficult. It's obvious Jim has a love for the sport, and we are grateful for this opportunity. Good competition can bring the best out of all of us, and we are excited to see this on display at the Cougar Invit.''
Westfield girls coach Joe Berardi chimed in with his thoughts.
"I think you're always looking to compete against quality opponents,'' said Berardi, in his first year at helm for the Blue Devils. "Trying to be wise with your scheduling is in some ways easier and more difficult this year for the same reason- less quality meets. Ultimately the goal for every team attending is to win in November, so either way this meet will be a great experience and we can't thank Jim enough for putting this on.''
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Teams will line up at the start with a 6 foot buffer zone between teams. There will be Chip timing so the runners will have no finish chute and can finish the race and quickly move away from the finish area.
Course: Grass and dirt, rolling hills, ¼" or 3/8" spikes; great spectator course with multiples places to watch. You can easily see and take splits at both mile and 2 mile marks.
The top 15 individuals in the Varsity and top 10 in JV and Frosh will earn medals. Medals to the team winner in each Varsity race. Special Team award for top Boys/Girls program-based on total of boys and girls points, minus any single gender teams. Awards will be put in a large envelope printed with the school name to be picked up at end of meet.