Samantha Mari Woolf can probably run faster than you.
She can probably beat you out in other competitions too, like swimming, archery and karate. It would all be in a day’s work for the Steinert High School junior, who has risen through the ranks of the girls’ cross country scene, placing 20th overall in the recent New Balance Shore Classic meet.
Another aspect of the super-athlete? For that, one doesn’t need to look any further than her cross country coach, Ron Yacyk.
“Sam is about as perfect a girl as you can get,” Yacyk said. “She is a great student, a super nice person, and she is a super athlete. I have never heard anybody say a negative thing about Sam.”
The praise inflates when one looks at the career of Yacyk himself, a veteran of Steinert for the last 36 years. Football and winter track have been his longest tenured coaching stints at 25 years apiece, while baseball is not far behind, with Yacyk having 22 years of coaching on the diamond under his belt. Cross country is no stranger either, as Yacyk has been helming distance runners for seven seasons and counting at Steinert. In all of his years with the high school, he has had countless students under his tutelage. Even with these massive numbers, Woolf stands above the rest.
“She’s one of the top student-athletes I’ve ever been associated with,” he said. “By far. Kids I’ve coached are now doctors and lawyers, and you put her up there with anybody.”
The praise from Yacyk accurately captures Woolf, who in addition to being a top student-athlete, is also the consummate teammate. Even as a teenager, when it is easy to dispel the meanings of friendships and bonds, Woolf adopts a mature view.
“I owe so much of my social life to cross country,” she said. “Girls like Hannah Sangillo, Sydney Sarno, Lexi Shultz and Mel Andrews are not only amazing teammates; they are also some of my greatest friends. Lauren Miller, a new friend who joined the team this year, is an amazing runner and an even better person. While the races don’t last long, I know all the friendships created throughout the seasons will.”
Friendships are abundant across the Steinert cross country squad, stemming from mentors who have since graduated that paved the way for those younger.
For Woolf, her mentor was Emma Meiczinger, a Steinert grad and current member of the Rider University cross country team.
“For the past two years, she has pushed me to become a faster and smarter runner,” Woolf said. “Emma is not only a mentor; she is an amazing friend and I am so grateful for her.”
And as with any mentor, mentee relationship, the time came for the reigns to be passed down upon Meiczinger’s graduation day. Woolf now sees herself as the leader for the younger Steinert runners, and with that comes responsibility.
‘It’s as if every nerve is buzzing with electricity and every muscle is so light that pieces may break off and float away.’
“Being a leader isn’t only about being one of the oldest or even one of the fastest. It’s mostly about knowing your teammates, caring about them, supporting them, helping them when they are struggling, and cheering them on when they improve. Being a leader isn’t so much about the leader as it is about helping those who look up to you,” Woolf said.
Woolf said she tries to help her younger teammates by being supportive, and she’s especially proud when they set personal records and have good races.
While Woolf does face the tall task of helping prepare those younger than her, she has an excellent model to follow. All she must do is trace the path she took to success, and implement that moving forwards.
Her career on the course began on a field of a different kind. Field hockey stick in tow, Woolf began to develop the notion that she liked the running more than the game of field hockey itself.
“The sport was a lot of fun, and my teammates were great, but I found myself always looking forward to running the timed miles,” she said.
Yacyk saw Woolf first the following spring, and the recruitment process to join the cross country team began. A perfect combination of natural ability and eagerness to run ensured Woolf would don the Steinert singlet on the course in the fall.
And that was all it took.
Even with Woolf’s innate athletic ability, and willingness to run for extended periods of time, there was of course a learning period for her new sport. Now, with nearly two seasons of experience under her belt, she can track what progressions need to be made from year to year, race to race.
“I have tried to steadily improve and remain positive,” she said. “It’s important to be positive so that even the slightest gains seem like major victories. I also believe it’s important to maintain a balance between self-motivation and patience. You want to push yourself, but not to the point of injury.”
This self-guided advice not only allows her to give insights to younger teammates, but also trains Woolf herself on how to tackle a certain course.
And for just under 20 minutes during each meet, that is all she has. It is Woolf and the course.
“My mind goes completely blank; I can’t think, and there’s just the mechanical feeling of my legs striding beneath me,” Woolf said. “The final stretch of the race is where you kick it; it’s where you give the course everything you have left. The pain as you near the finish line is so intense, yet at the same time, you feel invincible.”
But it is the feeling of finishing a race that has hooked Woolf.
“It’s as if every nerve is buzzing with electricity and every muscle is so light that pieces may break off and float away,” Woolf said.
Of course, her success on the course helps, with Woolf making an impression both with her times and where those times put her among her peers. One such moment came back on Oct. 5 at West Windsor Plainsboro North. With a goal this season to break the 19 minute mark, Woolf cashed in just under, ending the race with a time of 18:58.
With this year’s cross country goal met, Woolf has turned her sights to another. Since freshman year, she has strived to set a Steinert school record in the 800 meter run. In the spring, she will get her next crack at the challenge.
It is this mentality that Yacyk sees from his team’s leader day in and day out. It is a major reason behind his high praise for Woolf and the effort she puts forth.
“She’s works hard, she’s dedicated, and she never complains,” Yacyk said. “She’s a leader. She leads by example.”
For Woolf, the culmination of cross country will just signal the beginning of her swimming season, which will eventually fade into spring track and field. It’s a never ending cycle of physical endeavors for the junior, but really, she wouldn’t want to have it any other way.