A historic performance by the Union Catholic boys and a dramatic and sizzling comeback victory by Katie Hamilton turned the 83rd Union County Championships into an instant classic on Thursday at Warinanco Park in Elizabeth.
The meet was originally scheduled for Wednesday, but was moved back a day so Westfield could run. Westfield was coming off its second COVID-19 shutdown of the season, and Thursday was the first day it was permitted to resume competing.
Hamilton, a senior who running in her first XC season, used her huge kick to come storming back from a big deficit to capture one of the fastest races in course history with a blistering time of 18:35, No. 4 in Warinanco Park history. Led by Hamilton, the No. 5 ranked Blue Devils scored a dominating victory as Westfield overcame the COVID-19 shutdowns to regain its title and win its fourth title in five years.
Senior Clare Kelly of New Providence, who ran a gutsy race by charging out to a big lead with a very fast early pace, was second in 18:43, and sophomore Lindsay Hausman of Kent Place finished third, also in 18:43. Those times are No. 5 and No. 6 all-time on Warinanco's 3.19-mile layout. This is the first time that three girls ever ran sub 18:45 in one race at Warinanco.
More on the girls race later.
Let's check out what happened in the boys race, which produced a big upset as No. 13 ranked Union Catholic, behind individual champ Myles Plummer and a some huge PR's, threw down a stunning race as the Vikings won its first county title ever by knocking off NJ #4 Westfield and No. 8 Summit.
UC averaged 16:53, put its first five runnres in the top 15, and finished on top with 38 points. Westfield, favored to win a sixth straight title, was second with 49, and Summit placed third with 53. Rahway was fourth with 103, it's highest finish in more than 50 years!
It's the biggest XC victory in school history for the UC boys, and it was quite a turnaround for the Vikings, who fell to Summit, 25-34, at the Union County Conference Championships on Oct. 22 at Warinanco.
UC coach Mike McCabe has maintained all season long that his guys had the potential and the talent to be the top team in the county. But they had to put it all together on the same day for that to come true.
That's exactly what finally happened as the Vikings ran their best race of the season when it mattered most.
How did it happen?
Plummer, third as a sophomore last year, won the race as expected in 16:24, five seconds ahead of Westfield junior Ben Hacker, who ran a huge Warinanco PR of 16:29. Junior Shane Brosnan placed third for UC in 16:31, senior Matt Granizo was sixth in 16:52, sophomore Caudell Cajuste was 13th in 17:14, and senior Sam Hernandez was 15th in a 17:26.
Plummer's time matched his Warinanco PR, Brosnan was just five seconds off his PR, Granizo dropped 49 seconds off his conference time with a new course PR, Cajuste sliced 25 seconds off his Warinanco PR, and Hernandez cut 40 seconds off his Warinanco PR and ran a PR for any course!
Granizo said all the guys finally clicked on all cylinders at the same time.
"All season we have been waiting for all of us to run our best at the same time, and it finally happened today,'' said Granizo. "In all of our other meets this season, we'd have some guys have great days and some guys would have off days, but today we were all on. This is what we've been working for since I was a freshman, and it's just a great feeling to finally be county champs.''
Plummer joined DJ Thornton (2008 and '09) as UC's only boys county individual champions.
"Ever since I was third last year, this was my biggest goal for cross-country,'' said Plummer. "And to finish first and help my team win our first title makes this even better.''
McCabe said his entire pack executed their race plan perfectly.
"Our boys team has never won a state title, so this is the biggest championship we've ever won,'' said McCabe. "The guys up front, Myles, Shane, and Matt, gave us the strong races we needed, and Caudell and Sam came through with their best races for us.''
The UC boys have been agonizingly close to winning in the past, including in 2016 when the Vikings placed second to Westfield, 45-51.
"This has been a championship that we've been close very close to winning in the past, so it made us really want it even more, and the guys have been very motivated to finally get this. I'm relaly proud of the way they ran.''
In the girls race, it looked Kelly might runaway with the title when she blasted out to a seven second lead lead after a red hot 5:45 first mile. Kelly continued to pound the pace around the lake and still held about a 40-yard lead after two miles.
But the Duke-bound Hamilton refused to go away,. Hamilton dug down deep and quickened her stride with about 1,200 to go and started to close the gap on Kelly.
Hamilton, the 1,600 winnerat the State Indoor Meet of Champions last winter, showcased her superior leg speed when she got within 20 yards with 800 to go. Then she reeled in Kelly with about a quarter mile left, and finished off the victory by hitting the gas one more time in the homestretch before charging across the finish line.
Hamilton, who ran 6:36 for the last 1.1 miles, is the first Westfield girl to win the county title in 20 years, and just the fourth girl in school history to capture the individual championship. The last Blue Devil to win the girls race was Alexis Anzelone in 2000. Anzelone also won as a freshman in 1997.
"I just never stopped believing in myself,' said Hamilton, who won a county title last fall as a member of Westfield's soccer team. "I just gave it all I had to try to catch her (Kelly) and it worked out. She is a great runner and ran a great race. I would never have run as fast as I did without her.''
While ecstatic with her victory and all-time great performance, Hamilton was even more excited about helping Westfield, third last year, regain its title. The Blue Devils packed its first five in the top 12 and averaged 19:51 on the way to a 33-71 victory over No. 16 and defending champion Union Catholic. No. 17 Summit was third with 92.
"I've been running with the girls on this team for a long time, so to help us win the county championship means everything to me and my teammates. The whole team ran great today. It hasn't been easy for us this season with everything going on (the COVID shutdowns), so I'm very proud of how our team stuck together and kept working hard.''
Westfield's top five were Hamilton, senior and first year XC runner Isabel Boufarah, fifth in 19:55, senior Samantha Salz, sixth in 20:04, junior Emily DiSarno, ninth in 20:15, and senior Grace Endy, 12th in 20:29.
While it was the 19th county title for the Westfield girls, it was the first county trophy for first-year head coach Joe Berardi.
"This group is resilient,'' said Berardi. "And they've done it with two COVID shutdowns this season. They deserve all the credit.''