The last couple weeks have been emotionally draining for Angelina Perez and her teammates at Lakeland, who have been riding a wave of uncertainty about whether they'd get to race again this season.
That's because Lakeland High was shutdown on Oct. 15, a casualty of COVID-19. The school went all virtual and cancelled sports indefinitley. Having their season come to a sudden halt and seemingly to a sudden end was a heartbreaking and gut-wrenching pill to swallow.
But just when it seemed that their season was lost, all that frustration turned into jubilation when the sports programs at Lakeland were given the green light last Wednesday to finish their seasons, which resumed this past Saturday.
With an unexpected reprieve and knowing that each race could be the last of the season in this unpredicatble COVID age, Perez wasn't going to hold back when she and her teammates raced for the first time in 24 days at Tuesday's Lou Fraulo Invitational at Garret Mountain in Woodland Park.
Perez, one of the nation's top distance runners, was gunning for the course record, so she revved up her engine and let it rip, blitzing the rugged 3.1-mile layout as she froze the numbers on the clock at a mind-numbing 17:29! And she did that despite taking a fall around the lake right after the one-mile mark!
Perez, the NJSIAA Meet of Champions 3,200 winner last winter, shattered the Garret course record of 17:41 that was set by Abby Loveys of Randolph at the North Jersey, Sec. 1 Group 4 Championships in 2018.
Led by Perez's historic performance, the Lakeland girls, ranked No. 14 in the state, made an emotional and triumphant return by rolling to an 18-38 victory over runner-up West Milford.
Lakeland received several huge races from its enite pack as its top five grabbed places 1-3-5-8-10 and averaged 20:22, and all seven runners placed in the top 20.
After Perez ran 17:52 at Garret to win the Back to the Mountain Inviational on Oct. 10, it seemed like it was just a matter of time before she broke the course record.
Perez ran a 5:42 first mile before putting into high gear.
"It feels kinda crazy, I'm still in shock,'' said Perez, the Passaic County champion last year. "Breaking the course record was my goal this season, but when everything got shut down with my school, I didn't think we were even going to be able to finish the season. Today was so exciting, I was so happy to be able to compete with my team again! I just went out and gave it my all and left it all on the course. That's my plan for the rest of the races coming up because I don't know how the rest of the season will play out. "It was hard not being able to practice with my team the last three weeks, but I made sure to keep getting in my miles and working hard.''
Lakeland Head Girls Coach Damiano Conforti was understandably very proud of his team.
"It has been a hard and emotional few weeks for the Lakeland community'' said Lakeland Conforti. "Originally, we were told the season was done. But last Wednesday night the Superintendent decided to allow sports to finish the year. We got our season back after the reality that we may not get to run again this season. Hats off to the ladies for keeping the grind going and running on their own. It's amazing how well we ran, but I think we all came to appreciate the sport a whole lot more after getting it taken away. But we are on thin ice, and we know it could all be taken away very easily.''
In the boys competition, Nathan Armstrong of Pompton Lakes blasted a a big PR of 15:50 to smash his own school record, and Clifton (34-71 over Lakeland) won the boys titles.
Armstrong, a senior who was second at the Passaic County meet last year, won by 33 seconds over Clifton junior Jacob Heredia. The 15:50 by Armstrong was a PR for any course by 31 seconds!
The Clifton boys put together a great team race by averaged 17:44 and placing 2-4-7-10-11 to runaway with the title.
Since there is no Passaic County Championships this season because of COVID-19, this meet was viewed as the unoffical county championship. The Lakeland girls, second to Clifton last year (35-41) at the county met, have never won a county XC title. The Clifton boys finished second to Lakeland last year.