Big meets always generate a lot of electricity in the air, and a buzz around the start line as runners anxiously await the start of their races. And they often feature dramatic duels, and breathtaking finishes.
All of that was on display at Saturday's Cougar Invitational Team Challenge as many of the state's top teams and runners squared off and produced some instant classics.
But there was something else. A completely different vibe than I've ever felt before reverberated throughout Bucks Mill Park in Colts Neck.
Everyone could feel it the second they got off their buses.
After the entire outdoor T&F season was canceled and the XC season delayed, shortened (the State Group Championships and Meet of Champions were eliminated) for COVID-19 related reasons, runners and coaches alike expressed their feelings about how great it felt to be back competing in a loaded invitational, finally being able to do what they've missed so much and love so much.
So in a meet that lived up to all the hype, and could end up being the biggest meet of the season in terms of the best competition, it also wound up serving as a celebration of NJ XC.
Organized last month by Colts Neck coach Jim Schlentz, the Cougar Invite. provided a big shot of adrenaline that the sport desperately needed.
The boys and girls races each consisted of just eight team fields to meet the NJSIAA's safety guidlines, but every team packed a big punch as all 16 teams came in ranked in the NJ Top 20.
"This is what we all needed,'' said Middletown South girls coach Bill Clifton. "Something to get excited about, something to get motivated for. Just to be back out here with great competition in a big meet means the world to all these kids. This is such a great day for the sport of cross-country in New Jersey.
Since this was the first big meet of the season, and the first time racing for most runners since the indoor season ended in early March, everyone was eager to finally let it rip and test their fitness level and show what they could do.
And they delivered in sizzling fashion.
Colts Neck's Lilly Shapiro and Matt Bogdan blew up the 3.1-mile course with the two of the fastest times ever recorded on the layout, NJ #1 Christian Brothers Academy and the NJ#8 Haddonfield girls, who won a thriller over the NJ#3 Middletown South girls, each broke the course record aveages to highlight the action.
In a race that produced three of the top seven times in course history, Shapiro, the Monmouth County, Shore Conference, and CJ Group 3 winner as a sophomore last year, opened her season with a blistering 18:07, No. 2 in course history, to win the girls varsity race. Only the legendary Ashley Higginson of Colts Neck (17:34 in 2006) has ever run faster than Shapiro at Bucks Mill.
Haddonfield's Sarah Naticchia, who is headed to Harvard, was second in 18:17, No. 4 in course history, and Duke-bound Katie Hamilton of Westfield placed third in 18:27, No. 7 on the all-time list. Hamilton, the M of C 1,600 winner indoors, is running her first season of XC after playing soccer.
The girls team race provided lots of drama Haddonfield edged Middletown South on a sixth-runner tiebreaker. Haddonfield, with Naticchia leading the way, averaged 19:03 to smash the course record of 19:15 set in 2006 by Colts Neck, who went on to win the NIke National title that year.
Haddonfield went 2-4-7-20-21 for 54 points, and Middletown South, which had 1-5 split of 37 seconds, went 8-9-10-11-16 for 54. Haddonfield's No. 6 runner, Jesse Goode, placed 13 spots ahead of the No. 6 for Middletown South to give the Dawgs the dramatic win.
Dartmouth-bound Payton Weiner had a fantastic finish, which was one of the big keys to Haddonfield's victory as she blasted past several runners over the final quarter mile to finish seventh in 18:57.
Haddonfield's top five -
The boys varsity race was just as exciting.
In a clash between some of the state's best, Bogdan, a senior, capture the boys varsity race in dramatic duel with junior Jackson Barna of Ridge. Bogdan used a powerful kick to edge Barna, 15:24 to 15:25! Bogdan's time is tied for No. 4 in course history, and Barna is No. 6 all-time. At the M of C last fall, Barna, a junior, was 7th and Bogdan placed 9th.
Senior Chris DeSousa, who was right with Bogdan and Barna the whole way, led the course record breaking charge for CBA by placing third in 15:30, a school record for Bucks Mill and No. 8 in course history. CBA averaged 16:15.6, breaking the CR of 16:16.8 set in 2006 by Jackson Memorial, and went 3-10-13-20-22 to defeat NJ#3 Ridge, 70-89.
CBA's top five -
CBA's performance was even more impressive considering it was their season opener, and it came after the school went to remote learning for the past two weeks after students tested postive for COVID-19, which resulted in all athletic events, including practices, being shut down.
Team Challenge Champs
The meet also featured a Team Challenge, a combined boys and girls team champion. The winner of the Team Challenge was Haddonfield with 134 points, 12 points ahead of Westfield.
Haddonfield girls coach Jason Russo, whose team also won the freshman team title behind individual champ and rising star Anne Earp (12:07 over two miles), was one of many coaches who was ecstatic over the opportunity to race at such a great meet.
"Someone asked me about winning a team trophy, and my thought was that while that's always nice, just being able to see my runners get on the starting line is the greatest paycheck for them for all the hard work they've put it. This meet was great.''