Over the long, rich history of Holmdel Park, there haven't been very many elite runners from other states who have crossed the New Jersey border to see how low they can go on the legendary layout.
But that has begun to change over the last few years.
In 2018, the great Kaitlyn Tuohy of North Rockland, N.Y., took her only a shot at Holmdel and threw down a mind-numbing 16:21 to obliterate the girls course record by 67 seconds.
On Saturday, many of the top guns from Connecticut brought their talents to Jersey to take their best crack at historic Holmdel, and the runners from the Nutmeg State put on a sensational show in very sloppy and chilly conditions at the East Coast Club Championships at Holmdel Park, which was hosted by the Garden State Track Club.
Battling through strong winds and sideways rain, seniors Kate Wiser of Pomperaug High n CT., and Nick Bendtsen of Wolcott High in CT., grabbed the headlines as they splashed their way to electrifying victories over the muddy 3.1-mile course.
The blustery and wet conditions drastically affected the times. A quick comparison of times showed that most runners who competed at the Holmdel Invitational on Nov. 25 ran between 25-35 seconds slower on Saturday.
Unfortunately, the boys team race lost a lot of its steam when heavily favored Christian Brothers Academy, the No. 1 team in NJ all season, had to scratch on Friday after school activities were shutdown for COVID-19 related reasons.
Let's get into the great showdowns that went down on Saturday at Holmdel, the home of NJ's State Group Championships and Meet of Champions since 1976.
In a Clash of Titans that featured three of the best runners in the nation, the Notre Dame-bound Wiser won the girls Gold Division race in 17:26, No. 3 in course history! Wiser finished 21 seconds in front of All-American Charlotte Bednar of Lawrenceville, second in 17:47, and 33 seconds ahead of 2018 Foot Locker National Champion Sydney Masciarelli of Marianapolis Prep in Thompson, CT, third in 18:00.
Bednar, eighth at the Team National Championships as a sophomore last December, ran 17:21 at the Holmdel Invit., No. 2 all-time at Holmdel.
Wiser, seventh as a sophomore at the 2018 FL Nationals and ninth at FL Nationals last year, was coming off a big win last week at the 12thRock Northeast Club Championships in Montgomery, N.Y., running 16:46 to top Brooke Rauber of Tully High in N.Y. (second in 17:00), and Masciarelli (third in 17:20).
This was Wiser's first time racing Bednar, and the diminutive dynamo proved to be too much to handle.
Wiser, Bednar and Masciarelli were together after a 6:05 first mile, 18 seconds slower than Bednar's opening mile at the Holmdel Invit.). But Wiser really worked the big uphill coming out of the bowl and built a four second cushion on Mascarelli, with Bednar a few meters behind in third.
Wiser kept hammering the pace as she exited the bowl, and her aggressive front-running allowed her to extend the gap to 10 seconds when she passed the two-mile mark in 11:35. Bednar was now a step ahead of Mascarelli in second. Wiser was never challlenged the rest of the way, putting the race away on the downhills in the back woods as she opened a 20 second advantage coming onto the final homestretch.
In the boys Gold Division race, Bendtsen, up against a loaded field that included two Foot Locker National finalists, came up with the biggest victory of his career when he used a big surge coming out of woods and a huge final burst right before the finish line to score a big upset win by edging junior Gavin Sherry of Conrad High by a stride, 15:40.0 to 15:40.5. Sherry's twin, Callum, made it a 1-2-3 sweep for Connecticut by placing third in 16:00. Junior Aidan Puffer of Manchester High in CT., 21st at the 2019 Foot Locker Nationals, was third at the two-mile mark, six seconds off the lead. But he faded a bit over the final mile and placed seventh in 16:11.
This is the first time Bendtsen has ever defeated Sherry at any distance, on the track or in XC.
Sherry, who won the New England Championships last year and was 14th at the Foot Locker Nationals last December, was the big favorite coming into the race. Especially after running 15:13 to finish first at the 12thRock Northeast Club Championships last week in Montgomery, N.Y., 14 seconds ahead of Bendtsen, who was third in 15:27.
But unlike last week, this time Bendtsen refused to let Sherry get away from him.
Sherry led at the mile (5:29.0), and at two miles (10:32.8), but couldn't shake Bendtsen, who clung to Sherry's shoulder over the final 1.25 miles, digging down deep over the final half mile to keep Sherry within striking range, setting the stage for their dramatic stretch battle.
This is the first time Bendtsen has ever raced in Jersey, but it won't be the last because he will be attending Princeton University next fall.
Senior Vidhur Polam of South Brunswick, who won the Holmdel Invitational in 15:32 (tied for No. 20 in course history), was the top NJ finisher and fourth overall in 16:05. Senior Matt Bogdan of Colts Neck was fifth in 16:09.
Polam said the guys from Connecticut brought their A game.
"I didn't have my best day, but I have to give those guys from Connecticut their props,'' said the UPenn-bound Polam. "They came a long way to run and they weren't playing.''
Anas Bensaoud, a senior at Cleariew, finished his high school XC career with a hard-fought victory, capturing the boys Navy Division race in 16:55 to help lead the Rio Dam Track Club to the overall boys team title.
Bensaoud finished three seconds ahead of club teammate Zach Rhoda of West Deptford High, second in 16:58.4.
Bensaoud, who was 13th at the Meet of Champions last fall in 16:12 (a Clearview course record at Holmdel), was ecstatic to finish the season on a high note after overcoming the first injury of his career.
"I got a stress fracture (in his left foot) in the middle of July, and couldn't run again until the end of September,'' said Bensaoud. "So when I came back and started racing, my times weren't as fast as a lot of other guys were running because of all the training I missed. But eventually I started getting stronger and stronger.
Bensaoud didn't even know he was running at this meet until last Monday, when he joined the Rio Dam Track Club.
"I was a last minute entry, so I'm really glad I got this opportunity,'' he said. "It feels really good to be able to finish my last high school cross-country season with a win.''
In the girls Navy Division race, sophomore Aubrey Pierontoni of Kingsway made a huge move after the one-mile mark to open a huge gap, and pulled away to win with a big Holmdel PR of 19:27. Her previous best of 20:05 came when Pierontoni finished 31st in 20:05 at the State Group 4 Championships 2005.
The victory capped a great season by Pierontoni, who ran a PR of 18:37 to place second last week at the Crash Running Invite at Ocean County Park, and the won the Gloucester County title in October.
Without CBA in the mix, the boys team title was up for grabs.
The Rio Dam Track Club, comprised of runners from three different NJ high schools, averaged 17:01 and edged the Hunterdon Lions (North Hunterdon High School), 81-84. The Valley Project (Ridge High School) was third with 98.
The top five for Rio Dam were Brady Shute (Woodbury High), 10th in 16:18, Anas Bensaoud (Clearview), 31st overall in the two races combined in 16:55, Zach Rhoda (West Deptford), 32nd in 16:58, Jake Cobb (West Deptford), 53rd in 17:20, and Peyton Shute (Woodbury), 64th in 17:35.
The victory by the Hunterdon Lions, ranked No. 3 in the state, over NJ#2 Ridge (Valley Project) was huge for the Lions, who lost all three of its previous matchups this season to its Skyland Conference rival. At the Holmdel Invit, Ridge was second to CBA. 48-64, and North Hunterdon was third with 100.
The top five for North Hunterdon on Saturday which averaged 17:24, were Brian Pedretti, 18th in 16:40, Dan Pedretti, 21st in 16:45, Carter Beswick, 44th in 17:14, Aaron Wysocki, 47th in 17:17, and Adam Mugavero, 69th in 17:45.
North Hunterdon coach Tom Higgins, whose team averaged 16:44 at the Holmdel Invitational, was pumped up about the way his pack performed.
"After last week, the guys were really pumped about dropping an even better team average,'' said Higgins. "But the first few races proved that fast times weren't going to be in the bargain today, so it became more about plowing through the muck and making the best of a rough situation. They did, and they went home really proud.''
On the girls side, the Nutmeg All-Stars from Connecticut averaged 19:13 and edged the Garden State Track Club (19:05 average) for the overall team title, 36-39
NJ No. 1 Haddonfield finished the season undefeated against high school squads by placing third overall (after the Navy and Gold races were merged) with 74 points. The Dawgs averaged 19:54, 23 seconds slower than their 19:31 average at the Holmdel Invit. The slower average was a direct result of the difficult conditions.
The NJ No. 13 Colts Neck girls had a great race, placing fourth with 94 points and averaging 20:22. Colts Neck, led by junior Lilly Shapiro (11th in 18:56), finished 27 points ahead of NJ No. 5 Mendham, fifth with 121.