You don’t have to go far to see the best of high school girls’ cross country in the Garden State. In Colts Neck, Middletown South, Rumson-Fair Haven and Red Bank Catholic, you have four of New Jersey’s finest teams year in and year out. They turn county and conference championships into state meets, and 2022 should be no exception.
At Colts Neck, Head Coach Jim Schlentz has a Cougar team that returns five starters from last year’s NJSIAA Group III state champions, the program’s fourth title in the last five years.
Missing from that team is a runner who also won the Central Jersey sectional and finished third at the Meet of Champions: All-American Lilly Shapiro, one of the state’s best distance runners in the past decade.
Ava Wilmot, who won the Group III 3,200-meter title on the track in the spring, is ready to take over the role as the Cougars’ No. 1 runner. Schlentz believes she is best fitted for the 5K distance and is a contender to win the Group state title in cross country. Her cross country personal best is 18:18, and she has run 10:55.92 for 3,200 meters on the track.
“Ava is in fantastic form,” said Schlentz. “She is training well. She’s going to be big this year. She is stronger the longer the race.”
Senior Presslie Mariner is the team’s No. 2. She placed ninth at the Group championships. Mariner has improved her times every year, and Schlentz sees that trend continuing in 2022, making for a formidable one-two. Her cross country personal best is 18:08.
Ashley Pavlovsky (Jr.), Olivia Petschauer (Sr.) and Liz Scarpa (So.), the backbone of last year’s state champions, are back and running well forming a solid pack behind the front two. Sophia Scarpa (Jr.) and Gianna Canova (Jr.) will be providing depth.
The Cougars also have some promising freshmen that Schlentz expects will add to the team’s depth as the season moves into late-October and November.
Middletown South was hit hard by graduation, and expectations may not be high for the team around the state, but Head Coach Bill Clifton would not agree with that assessment.
“Our goal is always the same, and that is to have a final top 10 ranking as we have done the last six years,” said Clifton. “This team will be tough and motivated and run as a pack.”
The pack is led by junior Rosemary Shay, who lowered her cross country 5K time to 18:24 in ’21.
“Rosemary Shay gives the team star power,” said Clifton, who has coached the Eagles with his wife, Kathleen, for the last 21 years. “She is a threat to win any race she enters.”
Clifton added that Shay has the mindset, toughness and training threshold to be a champion.
Lauren Hutson (Sr.), Gwen Afanasewicz (Sr.), Emma Buthorn (Sr.), Skylar O’Keefe (Jr.) and Samantha Grein (Sr.) form the pack behind Shay that will make the Eagles dangerous. Hutson and Afanasewicz performed well in the big races last year and can be counted on to do it again. Buthorn, O’Keefe and Grein are quality racers who give it their all.
Incoming freshmen who have shown talent and could provide added depth, Clifton said.
Things are promising at Rumson where co-head Coaches Tim McLoone and Henry Mercer have six of their top seven returning from the team that won the Central Jersey Group II championship and their division at the famed Manhattan Invitational.
“We do have a veteran team returning, featuring our No. 1 runner Julia Shanes and last year’s freshman phenom Logan Rettino,” noted McLoone. “Our next two should be last year’s big surprises Georgia Edwards (Sr.) and Mary Applegate (Sr.). After that, it’s a scramble among a good number of young runners to those last spots in the varsity seven.”
Among those fighting for spots in the top seven are seniors Sarah Grace Butler, Chloe Fanning and Jackie Braceland, who have all competed for the varsity team in the past. Juniors Katie Murray and Ryan Malone are in the mix as well.
Shanes, who has an 18:43 cross country 5K personal best, led the Bulldogs to their seventh overall state sectional title last year, placing fourth.
Red Bank Catholic has one of the state’s dominant harriers in senior Cate DeSousa, the returning Non-Public A state champion. The Casey senior is coming off a big overall 2021-22 year in cross country as well as indoor and outdoor track where she won the outdoor Group 3,200-meter state championships. She posted personal bests 2:11.63 for 800 meters, 4:49.06 for 1,600 and 10:25.54 for 3,200. DeSousa is ready to run fast and poised for a great season. She will give RBC that important single digit score at every meet.
The Caseys are young behind DeSousa but experienced. Junior Avery Hargis, sophomores Rhiannon Hill, Charlotte Heaton and Sarah Hailu are back from the team that finished third at the NP-A championships.
Trinity Hall could make some noise this fall. Catherine Bonan, who was 14th at the NP-A state meet as a freshman, is a solid No. 1. Also returning are Eileen Bergin (Sr.), Lily Meulener (So.) and Olivia Haney (Jr.).