I'm not sure why, but the annual Skylands Conference XC Championships Meet has long been one of my favorite XC events of the year. A big part of it is the excellent racing that takes place. And there is also the atmosphere, always electric with enthusiastic fans cheering their teams like crazy and certainly the time of year in that pocket of North/ Central NJ. It truly is Fall, the time of year devoted to great Cross Country running. Skylands along with a handful of other meets, both early and late season, are always marked on my calendar and I either burn some vacation time or figure out a way to weasel my way out of my "other" job early enough to be in attendence.
This year will be now different. I will be at Natirar bright and early for this year's edition, which will start at the unusual (for a weekday) time of 1pm. I don't usually do preview articles, but this championship deserves one, along with as much on site coverage as we can give. So, here goes.
Varsity Girls - 1:00pm
This could be the marquee race of the day as the individual and team races feature a vitual who's who of top runners / teams in the state. The team race features NJ #1, and Nationally ranked Voorhees along with #4 Hillsborough, both coming off of County wins last week. Do not forget Ridge, North Hunterdon and Hunterdon Central, all of who have been in or close to the NJR Top Ten this season.
Coached by Justina Cassavell, Voorhees, with a deep, veteran squad, has been dominant in all of their meets this year. They scored team wins at Paul Short, Shore Coaches and at the Hunterdon-Sussex-Warren Championships last Saturday. They are led by senior Nisa Cicitta and junior Clarissa Modde and boast a solid pack that has produced a team average of 19:01 and a 1-5 gap of just 31 seconds (all races).
Hillsborough has been very lightly raced, and ran their 1st unit together for the first time last week in a winning effort at the Somerset Co. Championships. The Lady Raiders feature a mix of experience and youth that bodes well for the balance of this season and into the future. Kelly Janokowicz, a senior is the front runner for Rich Refi's charges and will figure in the individual battle. Frosh Stephanie Mauer, who ran the fastest frosh time of the day at Shore Coaches has emerged as the #2 runner for the team and can be a top 10 placer here. According to Refi, "Voorhees is a very talented team. Our goal is to match up with them 1-5 and get a good idea of where we are at this point in the season". I think that it will be closer than Coach Refi might project.
Marissa Ruskan of Bridgewater-Raritan HS is having one of those kind of years. The talented senior has scored victories in 5 of her 6 races this year, including wins in the "A" Race at Shore Coaches and at the Somerset Co. meet. Her time at Shore Coaches (18:44) was the second fastest of the day. The owner of the fastest time at SCI will be one of Ruskan's main challengers at Natirar. Kerry Dyke of Mt. Saint Mary Academy ran 18:42 that day for a mark that is currently the fastest on the Holmdel course this year. Add in Janokowicz, 2nd in the "A" Race at Shore Coaches, and 3rd in the Somerset race, Jillian Kelly, who beat Janokowicz at the Somerset meet, the Voorhees duo of Nisa Cicitta and Clarissa Modde and Kelly Shaffer of South Hunterdon, who is having a lights out freshman campaign. Mix that all together and you have the makings of a very fast, very competitive race up front.
Varsity Boys - 1:30pm
The Team race here should be a dog fight between two Somerset Co. schools (Hillsborough / Ridge) and the North Hunterdon Lions from Hunterdon Co. Sixth ranked Hillsborough won their 2nd straight county title last week, defeating #10 Ridge by 17 points. while North Hunterdon was the top Hunterdon Co. team at the H-S-W Championships. Both Hillborough & Ridge boast strong front runners in Nick McFarland and James Murphy respectively. McFarland took 2nd at Pleasant Valley Pk. behind Somerset Co. champ Liam Mullett with Murphy 2 seconds behind Nick's 16:14. The Raiders averaged 16:36 with a 1-5 gap of only 34 seconds. If Ridge can to move their #5 runner closer to the pack they will give Hillsboro a battle. Do not however sleep on No. Hunterdon. The Annandale based squad has been on the edges of the NJR Top Ten all year despite some tough times and some health issues. North averaged 16:55 over the Deer Path Park course but needs to get closer to the lead pack to score low enough to make the finish interesting,
The individual contest appears to be a little more clear cut as Liam Mullett (The Pingry School '14), Somerset Co. champion and owner of this year's fastest time at Holmdel Park looks to claim his first conference win after taking 3rd at last years race. Mullett will get competition from the aforementioned McFarland and Murphy as well as from Bernards Cooper Rudin and Andy Adamovics of Montgomery.