Very seldom does a team win the NJ XC Meet of Champions and come back even stronger and faster the following year.
But the NJ No. 1 ranked Union Catholic girls, the defending M of C winner, showed under the brights lights on Saturday night that their mix of very talented returners combined with the infusion of a deep and talented freshmen class could make UC's pack one of the best in state history and propel the Vikings into the national rankings. Time will tell, but the potential is there for a special season.
UC, led by freshman phenom Paige Sheppard, flexed its remarkable firepower with a stunning season opening performance by throwing down a remarkable 1-3-4-5-6 finish and dropping a red hot 18:27 average to runaway with the girls varsity team title at the first-ever Trials of Miles Opening Night presented by New Balance at the Sayreville Sports Complex. This was the first ever meet on the newly designed 5K course.
The UC girls also won the J.V. and freshman team titles.
Sheppard, who has won multiple national age group national titles and won't turn 14 until next month, showed lots of poise and a killer kick to pull away late for the win in 17:53 to spark the Vikings to a 15-72 victory over runner-up Randolph.
Sheppard was with teammate Peyton Hollis and Katherine Bohlke of Newington High in Connecticut with about a half-mile to go when she dropped the hammer and opened a 25-yard gap as she hit the final straightaway. Sheppard came storming across the line nine seconds ahead of Bohlke.
The Duke-bound Hollis, the fastest returning runner in the state at Holmdel Park, was third in 18:18.81. The other scorers for UC, who earned its first berth in the Nike XC Nationals last year, were UPenn-bound Courtney Kaiser, fourth in 18:27, freshman Cayleigh Kaiser, Courtney's sister who was fifth in 18:35, and sophomore Ella Solorzano, sixth in 19:00.79.
Sheppard said she didn't feel any pressure and wasn't really nervous before her eagerly anticipated high school debut, but she did say she had something to prove to herself.
"I didn't run as well as I would have liked at a time trial we had recently, so I really wanted to run well tonight for my teammates and help my team start the season off with a victory,'' said Sheppard. "I felt really strong during the race, and just gave it my all at the end. Winning my first race is a great feeling, but I'm just so happy to be part of such a great team at Union Catholic.''
Another squad that made a big season-opening statemtent was St. Anthony's from South Huntington on Long Island, who rolled to a 28-82 victory over runner-up Delbarton in the boys varsity race. St. Anthony's packed its top five runners in the top 11 and averaged 16:25. The Friars also rolled to victory in the J.V. race.