Going into this year’s Mercer County Championships on Oct. 28, the West Windsor-Plainsboro High South girls’ cross country team was chasing history.
The Pirates have won the last four straight Mercer County Championships and were shooting for their fifth straight this year (the meet occurred after the News’ deadline) at Thompson Park. Only one other school, Steinert from 1978-82, has ever accomplished the feat.
The Pirates are trying to remain at the top despite not having an individual who stands out. For the past 14 years, a WW-P South runner has finished in the top three at the Mercer County Championships, but the Pirates graduated last year’s county runner-up Christina Rancan.
Sophomore Julia Mao, who has been the Pirates’ top runner for most of this season, was sixth last year at the county meet, and has the 14th fastest time in the county two weeks into October.
“It feels really different,” Mao said. “I feel like there’s a little more pressure. That also helps me push myself. I tell myself I need to do this for my team.”
What made the Pirates still the favorites in the county is the group just behind Mao. They might miss out on scoring a low number with their top finisher, but their depth has never been better. The split from Mao to their fifth finisher, Kavya Tummalapalli, at the Shore Coaches Invitational was only 26 seconds.
“It’s the tightest pack we’ve ever had,” said Pirate girls coach Josh Siegel. “It’s never been this tight.”
WW-P South finished a promising second in the Varsity A race at the Shore Coaches meet that offers an early look at some of the best Group IV schools in the state. Mao was 21st in 20 minutes, 21 seconds. Serena Chang was 26th in 20:31. Elizabeth Petrov was 30th in 20:37, Kelsey Kobus took 33rd in 20:46 and Tummalapalli was 34th in 20:47. Ashley Own was 89th and Sam Miller was 94th.
“I feel like it’s going really well,” Mao said. “Our team has a lot of depth this year. Everyone’s times are really close and we’ve never really had a team where there are so many potential top runners.”
Haley Rich, a senior normally in the WW-P South top seven, did not run. She and Alex Hesterberg are the only seniors back from the top seven Pirates that competed at last year’s counties, so not only are the Pirates deep and fast, but they are young.
Siegel says that the Pirates have as many as 15 runners in the mix to run varsity. Competition is strong for the top seven spots, and that has helped WW-P South remain a power in the county and state year after year despite significant graduation losses each year.
Mao started running track and field in sixth grade at Grover Middle School. She added cross country in seventh and eighth grade before joining the high school team last year. She made a quick impact as their No. 2 finisher.
“I heard about all these amazing runners,” Mao recalled. “I really didn’t think I’d be up there. It was a really fun experience hanging out with everyone and meeting so many new amazing people.”
Mao has come back better this year. Her weekly mileage is higher, as are her expectations. Mao feels the benefits of running for the Pirates last year in such an important position.
“I feel like it’s different because I’m more used to running now,” she said. “I’ve had experiences with good races and bad races. The more experience you have, the more you know about what you should do and you try different running styles. It’s pretty different from freshman year. You also have to lead.”
Her time at Shore Coaches was nearly 40 seconds better than a year ago. If Mao can continue that sort of drop at the county race, the Pirates will reap the rewards.
“She’s a dynamic girl,” Siegel said. “She’s been working very hard and we’re happy with her progress. There could be some pressure on her, but she’s handled it well.”
The Pirates individually have made significant jumps from last year to this year, and that is encouraging given where they placed last year. Kobus took ninth and Petrov was 13th in last year’s county championship. Tummalapalli won the JV race last year with Chang eighth in it. Even if WW-P South doesn’t have a top-three individual at counties, it should be in good shape.
“Everyone’s times from last year have improved,” Siegel said. “We might be better than last year.”
Mao has come back strong after being slowed by knee injuries last spring. She worked through them during some time off after the spring track and field season and is taking better care of herself. Now physically fine, she is looking to push herself to a strong finish to the year.
A week after the county meet, the Pirates will begin their state championship quest. WW-P South took second in the Central Jersey Group IV meet, and their team’s season ended after an eighth-place finish at last year’s Group IV meet. Only Rancan advanced to the Meet of Champions.
“We’re really hoping that we can win sectionals,” Mao said. “All our times are really close. We’re training really hard to become better. Hopefully we can keep moving on and make it to Meet of Champions too.”
“We’ve been really happy with the way things have started,” Siegel said. “We’re hoping they can continue through this next month.”