By Ken Weingartner
Dave Misselhorn can list three reasons why the Bordentown High girls’ track and field team 4×400-meter relay squad is so good.
“They buy into the workouts, they buy into the team, and they buy into each other,” said Misselhorn, who coaches the Scotties’ sprinters.
Of the three, the third might be the most important reason Shakara Siler, Aishah Dukes, Cait Nitschmann and Brianna Pagnani have enjoyed so much success this season.
The girls, who entered mid-May undefeated in dual meets, won the Burlington County Scholastic League Patriot Division 4×400 championship with a near-school record performance on May 10. Their time of 4:08.86 was just off the program mark of 4:07.72—which was set last year by a squad that included Siler, Dukes and Nitschmann.
“I get really nervous for my individual races, but with the 4×4 I’m not nervous at all because I have so much trust in my teammates,” said Nitschmann, who is a junior in only her second season on the track team. “I think you need to be able to trust each other, to know that everyone is going to work as hard as they possibly can.
“We help each other when we’re nervous, just try to calm each other down, and we push each other to be better.”
Added Siler, the only senior in the group and a four-year performer, “The 4×4 is my favorite part of track. I’m running with three other amazing females, and it’s a fun race. Your adrenaline is pumping and it’s fun to do.”
Last year, the 4×400 team finished second at the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I championships and third in the statewide group final to advance to the Meet of Champions. In addition to Siler, Dukes and Nitschmann, that squad featured then-senior Jackie Ansong, who was one of the state’s best hurdlers.
Enter Pagnani, a freshman who was asked to fill this season’s vacancy on the 4×400. Pagnani’s best individual event is the 800, where she won the BCSL Patriot Division championship and a week later finished fifth at the Burlington County Open Championships with a school record time of 2:24.11.
“I was nervous,” Pagnani said. “They went really far last year and I didn’t want to let them down. I’m fast, but I’m not as fast as them. They told me not to worry about it because it’s a team.
“I’m really happy I do the 800, but I really like the 4×4 because it’s with other people and they’re my really good friends.”
Pagnani joined the track team as a way to stay in shape for soccer and basketball, but it’s turned into much more.
“I didn’t know in the beginning of the season that it was going to become this big, but it did,” Pagnani said. “It turned into something that became a part of me.”
A similar thing happened to Siler when she joined the track team four years ago.
“My mom ran track when she was in high school and she wanted me to try it so I decided to give it a go,” Siler said. “I didn’t like it at first, but then I started to get good at it, so I stayed with it. I like working hard and giving yourself a goal and meeting that goal. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to strive to be the best.”
Siler finished second in this year’s 400-meter run at the Burlington County Open Championships, setting the school record of 58.61 seconds in the process. She also finished second in the BCSL divisional 200 and 100 this season. A year ago, she finished sixth in Group I in the 200.
On the 4×400 team, Siler runs the anchor leg.
“That’s the best part,” Siler said. “Everyone is watching. It just puts that pressure on you to run good and to run a good time. Yeah, I feel pressure, but I push myself.”
Dukes, a junior, finished sixth in the 400-meter run at last year’s Group I finals, but added a new event midway through this season—the 400 hurdles—and excelled quickly. She won the Patriot title in the hurdles and finished second at the Burlington County Open Championships. She also was second in the 400 at the divisional meet.
“I think track is fun,” said Dukes, who started running with the Scotties as a freshman. “I didn’t like the workouts at first, but you get through that. I just want to do my best and go all out. I just want to do what I have to do for the team.”
Dukes runs the third leg of the relay. Sometimes, though, her work begins before the race.
“I try to get the team together and if they’re not confident I try to push them and encourage them,” Dukes said. “I think the key to a good relay, you have to have good quarter-milers and I think you have to have good camaraderie. You have to have good teamwork and be optimistic and confident about each other.
“We push each other. We cheer each other on and work together. We work really hard. We’re close to the best time we had last year. I think we have a pretty good chance to place and go on to [the Meet of Champions].
Nitschmann, who is a standout field hockey player, gets the 4×400 started for Bordentown. She said that she enjoys track thanks to the event.
“Because,” she said with a grin, “winning is fun.”
Running the opening leg of the 4×400 has its advantages.
“You’re done first, and if I run bad everyone forgets about me,” Nitschmann said, laughing. She added, on a more serious note, “Each leg is equally important. You want to be able to get out there and get in a good spot. I don’t think [leading off] is any more important than any other leg.”
Although the 4×400 is the team’s focus, the girls ran the 4×800 earlier this season at the Woodbury Relays. They finished third, setting the school record of 10:33. Then they came back later in the day and finished second in the 4×400.
“The 4×8 was the hardest race I’ve ever run,” Nitschmann said. “I thought the 400 was hard, and then I ran the 800. After, I was like, the 400 is the easiest race of my life.”
Misselhorn says the girls’ willingness to work hard and push themselves is what he most enjoys about them.
“What makes a good track athlete is you’ve got to be headstrong, and these girls are headstrong,” Misselhorn said. “They’re going to fight through. I’ve seen plenty of good athletes come through and they couldn’t do it. Runners are a different breed.
“This is why I coach, because of people like them. It’s fun to watch them. It’s fun to see them get joy out of it.”