There have been a lot of legendary runners and teams that have produced jaw-dropping and mind-boggling races over the years in New Jersey's rich distance running history.
But what happened on Saturday at Holmdel Park may just be the most stunning, eye-popping, earth-shattering and electrifying performance in state history.
The Union Catholic girls, who have been chasing the Holmdel Park course record average for two years, not only broke it at the 51st NJSIAA Meet of Champions, they absolutely blew it apart with an epic performance for the ages when the Vikings leveled up and lit up the 3.1-mile course with a hard to fathom average of 18:37!!!!! That's not a misprint!!
UC's masterpiece propelled the Vikings to its second straight title in the biggest blowout in meet history, outscoring runner-up Middletown South, 31-145. That's the biggest margin of victory in a girls race in meet history!! And UC's 31 points is the third lowest score ever recorded by a girls squad. North Hunterdon scored 24 in 1986 and 30 in 1981.
This is by far the greatest performance by a NJ girls team on any course ever!!! It's not even close! Taking down the Holmdel Park course record by 24 seconds is the ultimate XC flex!
For some perspective on just how massive this performance is by the Vikings, the 18:37 average by UC is faster than 18 of the winning individual times at the Meet of Champions.
The Vikings, who have a mix of great senior leaders, talented sophomores and arguably the best freshmen class in NJ history, took down the most hallowed and prestigious course record in NJ by a staggering 24 seconds!!! Voorhees set the record of 19:01.0 at the 2007 Meet of Champions, and Union Catholic, after a couple near misses this season, finally broke through and smashed that record into pieces.
On a day dominated by the defending champions, UC's masterpiece propelled the Vikings to its second straight title in the biggest blowout in meet history, and Emma Zawatski of Freehold Township won her second straight title in 17:52 as she rallied to keep her crown in a memorable showdown with freshman phenom Paige Sheppard of UC, second in 17:54!
Let's take a deeper dive into this instant classic.
This was the race that UC, ranked No. 1 in NJ and No. 6 in the U.S., had waited all season for, and the Vikings made sure to get what they came for by leaving lots of smoke on the course and no crumbs!
Sheppard, as gifted and talented as any freshman to ever burst on the scene in NJ, got the UC express rolling by igniting a 2-4-8-15-16 finish for the Vikings with her runner-up finish in 17:54, the third fastest time ever run by a freshman at Holmdel.
UC's Fab Five scores were Sheppard, UPenn-bound Courtney Kaiser, fourth in 18:17, Duke-bound Peyton Hollis, eighth in 18:41, freshman Cayleigh Kaiser, 15th in 19:06, and freshman Kayla Devine, ninth in 19:09. UC showed its superior depth as its sixth and seventh runners, sophomores Ella Solorzano (29th and 19:34, and Emmy O'Hearn (43rd in 19:54) both finished ahead of the No. 2 runner for Middletown South.
Last week, UC won the Non-Public A title with an average of 19:04.8, tied for No. 4 in Holmdel history at the time.
How did they chop off 27 seconds in a week?
Sheppard sliced off 15 seconds, Courtney Kaiser cut six seconds, Hollis made a huge drop of 75 seconds (she had an off day last week), Cayleigh Kaiser ran a 13 second Holmdel PR, and Devine was 33 seconds faster this week.
"We knew that we were ready to drop a bomb and crush that record,'' said Courtney Kaiser. "We just had to all run our best on the same day and we put it all together today and made it happen. We knew we were' capable of something like this. It was just a matter of time.''
UC's 18:37 added to its course record-breaking rampage this season. The Vikings have taken down the CR averages at every course they've run on this season with their top guns, Sayreville Soccer Complex (18:27), Oak Ridge Park (18:20), Warinanco Park (18:18), and now Holmdel.
Courtney Kaiser said there still a lot of work to be done.
"We are just getting started,'' she said. "Our goals now are to win the regional and get to nationals and take on the best teams in the country and see what we can do.''
ANOTHER JEWEL IN HER CROWN
The long and eagerly awaited showdown between Zawatski and Sheppard was even better than anticipated as the veteran and the rookie clashed for the first time.
Sheppard surprisingly darted out fast and aggressively attacked the opening start hill, building a 20-yard lead when she hit the half-mile mark. Sheppard still led by seven seconds when she ran past the mile-mark in 6:06 with Zawatski leading the chase pack.
Relying on her experience and race savvy, and trusting her training, Zawatski stayed relaxed, knowing there was plenty of time to try to reel in Sheppard.
Sheppard maintained a six second lead coming out of the bowl, but then Zawatski started to eat up ground on Sheppard as they headed for the 2-mile mark. Sheppard hit 2 miles in 12:03 with a hard-charging Zawatski now just three seconds behind. Zawatski then made a race-changing surge around the tennis courts to seize the lead and then kept pounding through the back woods to try to put the race away, opening up a seven second lead on Sheppard just before exiting the woods.
But Sheppard refused to go down without a fight, digging down deep to summon a huge kick when she came on the final straight as she made a strong run at Zawatski, cutting the deficit with seemingly each step as the two stars hammered toward the line. Sheppard pulled within 5 yards of Zawatski, but the champ showed a lot of heart and was able to find something in her tank to keep Sheppard from getting any closer.
Zawatski said she often dreams about her races the night before.
"This race went exactly the way I dreamed it would,'' said Zawatski.
Zawatski said she refused to panic when Sheppard bolted out fast to start the race.
"I knew I had to stay patient and keep running my race, and I felt confident that if I did that I could close the gap and have a good chance to win,'' said the undefeated Zawatski. "When I finally got close to her, I knew (the tennis courts) was the place to just go for it. But I knew she would fight back, so I had to really work hard and close as fast as I could. I knew she was coming at the end, so I was just pushing with everything I had to get to the finish line.''
Zawatski won by two seconds over the hard-charging Sheppard, 17:52 to 17:54. That's the closest girls finish since at the M of C since Melanie Thompson of Voorhees edged Jill Smith of Southern, 18:02 to 18:03, in the 2007 race.
Zawatski, who won last year in 18:38, is the 11th girl to repeat as champion, and her 17:52 places her 18th all-time and 16th among NJ girls at Holmdel. Zawatski now has four M of C titles on her amazing resume (2 in XC and the 1,600 indoors and outdoors).
"This was definitely not an easy race,'' said the University of Colorado-bound Zawatski. "Paige Sheppard is such a great runner and is going to do amazing things in this sport. She ran great today. It took everything I had to win, and it means even more to finish first again because of how hard this race was."
Next up for Zawatski is the Foot Locker Northeast Regional in Boston in 2 weeks.
"The goal is to get back to Foot Locker Nationals,'' said Zawatski, who was 23rd at the National Championships last year.
Sheppard's 17:54 makes her the third fastest freshmen in course history behind only Briana Gess of Haddonfield, who ran 17:45 to win in 2013, and Christina Allen of River Dell, who ran 17:50 at the Holmdel Invitational in 2020.
Zawatski (17:52) and Sheppard (17:54) led 14 girls under 19 minutes in one of the fastest races ever.