Takeaways From An Unforgettable Sectional Saturday

It's time for a little Sectional Saturday rewind!

We've been pouring over the results the last couple days and keeping track of all the memorable moments and highlights that took place all across the state.

Down below you can find our biggest takeaways and some notes from around the trails.



First and foremost, after the Covid shortened season knocked out the Group Championships and Meet of Champions last year, it was awesome to see the energy and electricity back again! Big crowds lining the courses and wild celebrations that ensued after teams won or found out they advanced to the State Group Championships was a welcomed sight. 

Here's to every runner, coach, and parent who persevered through the struggles of Covid, quarantine's, and lost seasons.     

There were a lot of great team performances on the boys side, but if I had to pick the one that jumped out the most I'm going with what Clifton did in the Group 4 race at the NJ Sec. 1 meet.

Seeing John Pontes, who graduated from Clifton in 1968 and coached the team to its first sectional XC title in 1987, return Clifton to the top by ending Ridgewood's streak of 11 titles in a row and snapping a 34-year title drought was amazing!

And how about the way Clifton did it! The Mustangs smashed the Passaic County course record for Garret by averaging 17:04 and they became the first Passaic County team to win a Group 4 sectional title since New Milford in 2001.

There are probably a lot of people outside of North Jersey who aren't familiar with Pontes and his program. Make no mistake about it, Pontes is one of the very best to ever coach in New Jersey.  

What Brooke Hunter has done this season is simply amazing.

How many first year XC runners win a sectional title and become the fastest runner in school history? That's what Hunter did on Saturday as the junior from P-Burg dropped a huge PR of 18:44 to win the NJ. Sec. 2 Group 4 title at Oak Ridge Park. Hunter, who gave up field hockey this season, is the first runner from P-Burg to win a sectional XC title, and her 18:44 is the fastest ever run by a P-Burg girl on any course.

This sort of thing just doesn't happen very often!

Hunter is the latest example of why everyone should at least give running a try. There are so many potentially great high school runners out there, but they have no idea how talented they are. To all the coaches who are trying to get kids to go out for XC and track and field, be sure to tell them they could very well become the next Brooke Hunter!  

I'm still blown away by what the Skyland Conference did at the NJ Sec. 2 meet at Oak Ridge Park.

Voorhees (Group 2), North Hunterdon (Group 3) and Ridge (Group 4) all swept the team titles to give the Skyland Conference 6 of the 8 titles. And a pair of Skyland Conference runners, Marco Langon of Bridgewater-Raritan (15:02) and Cassidy Roop of North Hunterdon (18:22), broke the course records!   

Speaking of Langon, after his record run he was introduced to Marty Hannon, who coached the legendary Edward Cheserek at St. Benedict's Prep. For those who haven't been paying attention for the las decade, Cheserek owns the course record of 14:53 at Holmdel Park, which he set in 2011. 

Langon told Hannon that his biggest goal since he started running in high school was to break Cheserek's Holmdel course record. Hannon wished him luck in his pursuit, and Langon jokingly told Hannon to check his notifications for updates over the next couple weeks regarding the course record!! 

Whether Langon, Jackson Barna of Ridge or anyone else can threaten Cheserek's Holmdel record remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain - it sure is fun to have someone like Langon talk about trying to make a run at it.             

Angelina Perez's mind-boggling 16:54 course record at Garret Mountain (her fourth time breaking the CR on the course) in the NJ Sec. 1 Group 2 race means that she's more than capable of taking down the NJ course record at Holmdel Park, which is 17:21 by Charlotte Bednar of Lawrenceville last year. 

Garret Mountain is a tough course, and many runners run very close to the same time at Garret as they do at Holmdel. And I don't really care what any conversions might show you, Perez, a senior at Lakeland, wants that record and is ready to go sub 17:20 at Holmdel. Perez is having one of the greatest season in NJ history, and she is so fit right now that she could even flirt with sub 17 at Holmdel!    

Look out for Dennis Fortuna!

I'm not sure why, but I feel like his guy is still flying under the radar a bit. And that shouldn't be the case. Fortuna showed again at SJ Group 3 race that he's one of best in the state by taking down the course record at Dream Park with a time of 15:09 to spark Triton to its first sectional title. I wouldn't bet against Fortuna in the State Group 3 race!     

I suggest you do some soul searching if you weren't happy for the West Windsor-Plainsboro North boys and the Middletown South girls after they each won sectional titles. WW North, the CJ Group 3 champ, had their entire season cancelled because of Covid last year. And the Middletown South girls, the CJ Group 4 champs, got shutdown on the eve of sectionals last year. So here's to the WWN boys and coach Brian Gould, and to the Middletown South girls and coaches Bill and Kathleen Clifton.  

If you ever want to know how much a coach cares about his runners and how much passion they have for what they do, then just remember the overflow of emotion that overcame Sean Walsh after his North Hunterdon girls won a seventh straight title by edging defending champ and favored Mendham in the NJ Sec. 2 Group 3 race.

Walsh, who is stepping down at North Hunterdon after this season, had tears in his eyes when he addressed his team after the victory, and the runners on the team all said they ran their hearts out to send their coach out on top. How great is that. That's what the sport is all about!

Walsh, the head coach for 18 years, will go down as one of the all-time great coaches in NJ after guiding the Lions to three straight Meet of Champions XC titles (2017, '18, '19). Only four other coaches in state history have ever done that!   

Congrats on a great run, Sean!

Tara Kibbe is proof that good things did happen during quarantine last year.

Kibbe, now a junior at Lyndhurst, said she was bored during quarantine and one of the only things she could by herself outside was run. She quickly became hooked, gave up soccer last year, and on Saturday she made history by becoming the first girl from Lyndhurst to win a sectional XC title.     

Don't ever count out Caroline Mehlhorn of Montgomery.

Mehlhorn, who recently committed to the University of Colorado, wasn't quite hitting the kind of fast times earlier this season that she ran ran in the past. But Mehlhorn cranked it up in the Central Jersey, Group 4 race when she finished first in 18:37 to win her fourth straight title!.

Mehlhorn is just the fourth 4-time sectional girls champion in Central Jersey, and she's just the 11th girl in state history to ever pull off the sectional 4-peat!!! 

Junior Grace Wassell of Highland took a step closer to joining Mehlhorn in that prestigious club of 4-time winners by dropping am 18:05, the second fastest time in course history at Dream Park, to win her third straight SJ Group 3 race. Wassell is the 11th girl in SJ history to win three straight titles.             

Can we get Jason Russo inducted into every XC/T&F Hall of Fame there is? Now!  

It's simply astonishing what Russo has accomplished as the head girls coach at Haddonfield. Winning a sectional team title is hard enough, but a year after Russo lost four of his top five runners from the No. 1 team in the state, Haddonfield not only won a record 12th straight SJ Group 2 title and extended its state record to 29 titles overall, but the Dawgs did it by throwing down a perfect score of 15!!!  In case you're wondering, only four other teams in state history have thrown a 1-2-3-4-5 perfecto in a sectional race.

How incredible is that!!

There are some victory celebrations that just hit different. 

Like seeing the Clearview girls getting driven back to their school on a fire truck with the sirens blaring after winning its first ever sectional title in SJ Group 3. This is a tradition that Haddonfield started and it's one of the coolest things I've seen a town do to show support for their XC teams.       

Should Oak Ridge Park be the permanent home of the NJ Sec. 2 meet? I vote yes!!!

Oak Ridge, which replaced Greystone as the sectional site for the last two years, is one of the most spectator friendly courses you will ever find, and it's very fast. I haven't found a coach, runner, parent, or grandparent who doesn't love the place.

And if that's not enough, ask Marcus O'Sullivan, the legendary Irish miler and current head coach at Villanova, what he thinks. I'll save you the trouble since I already know what he thinks. O'Sullivan was at the NJ Sec. 2 meet at Oak Ridge and raved about the layout, pointing out how you can see almost the whole race by just moving a short distance to a few different spots.

Now that's a pretty strong endorsement!