Matt SantaMaria had qualified for the Meet of Champions in track and field before, but never in cross country. The High School North senior reached his goal in his final chance.
SantaMaria finished eighth in the boys Group III race in 16 minutes, 24 seconds at Holmdel Park on Nov. 11. The top three teams plus the top five individuals outside of qualifying teams automatically reach the MOC. There are also 10 wild card spots for individuals and two for teams.
“It feels really great,” SantaMaria said. “It’s something I’ve been working toward all four years. This is my first time qualifying. This is something I’ve always aspired to do, so it feels good.”
SantaMaria finished in 37th place in the MOC on Nov. 18, with a time of 16:35.
Despite an injury plagued junior year, SantaMaria wasn’t far off from reaching it last year. He was just four seconds from taking the final wild card qualifying spot last year.
Coach Brian Gould was confident SantaMaria would make it this year. “He was so close last year. He’s one of the top returning two-milers. He’s a very talented and dedicated distance runner.”
“If you watch the workouts, it’s clear he’s very capable of racing with the best guys in the state,” said Gould.
SantaMaria is the first WW-P North boy to qualify for the MOC since Eddie Cunningham placed 14th in 2012. SantaMaria was feeling strong heading into the Group III meet after placing third in a personal-record 15:29 at the North Jersey Section 2, Group III meet one week earlier.
“Sectionals was a really big confidence booster,” SantaMaria said. “I had a great race that weekend. I was trying to ride that momentum into the next week. I always get in my head with Holmdel. I’ve never had a great race there. I had a little more nerves than I normally do before races. I wasn’t too sure I was going to qualify. I try to stay out of my head during races. I used the momentum I had from sectionals to gain the confidence to know that I could make it.”
‘He’s a very tough kid on race day. He doesn’t back down. He’s quiet, and he kind of speaks with his actions.’
SantaMaria had hoped to be joined by his team. The Knights just missed the final qualifying spot and the last wild card slot when they finished fourth in Group III with an average time of 16:57. They had placed second at the sectionals, one point ahead of Hopewell Valley.
“The guys had a very, very good season,” Gould said. “I met with them and we talked about the bittersweet feeling and the inner turmoil you have when you put all your heart into something and have a great season but it ends on a disappointing note, but taking the time to sit in that and live in that and maybe in a week step back and recognize these guys ran an amazing race at sectionals.”
Gould pointed out that the team beat Hopewell Valley, who went on to finish third in the group and is expected to medal at the Meet of Champions.
“There’s a sense of accomplishment, but there’s also a sense of ‘Hey, that could have been us.’,” Gould said.
“In our sport, that’s the thing that keeps you moving forward,” he added. “I really think improvement is driven from emotion, and emotion is fueled from the heart. It was a great season with a tough day at an unfortunate time. The senior class, they definitely left the team better than they found it. They developed really nicely and any success these underclassmen have going forward will come back to being attributed to the guys who are seniors now.”
SantaMaria is one of five seniors in the top seven for the Knights. The seniors proved to be strong leaders together for the team.
“We’ll be losing more guys this year than we ever have,” Gould said. “We’ll bring back two guys, and we have a very small junior class. Most of our team this year is freshmen and sophomores. We’ll be very young with Vedang (Lad) and a relatively new cross country runner, Ashrrith Rachakunta, who was a sprinter in ninth grade and in his first year of cross country this year he ran 16:40. Besides that, it’ll be a lot of colts training and filling in some pretty big shoes.”
SantaMaria will be leaving some of the biggest shoes. He broke into the varsity lineup as a freshman at the Mercer County Championships—he says as an injury replacement, but Gould says he earned it. SantaMaria had been on his radar since the year before.
SantaMaria had run cross country in sixth and seventh grade, but did soccer in eighth grade. It was Gould who had talked to SantaMaria about joining cross country during the middle school track season.
“My older brother had done it and he told me how great the team was,” SantaMaria said. “I missed running and soccer wasn’t something I really wanted to do, so I decided running was the path I wanted to take.”
As SantaMaria has improved, he has enjoyed the sport more and taken it more seriously. He was the Knights’ top runner as a sophomore, and emerged on the state level when he qualified for the first time for the MOC in the 3,200 meters in outdoor track and field. That moment helped push him to expect more of himself in cross country.
“After I qualified for outdoor track my sophomore year, I qualified for the Meet of Champs in the 3,200, that’s when it hit me,” SantaMaria said. “That season was when I really started to improve and I started to think I could do really well in other races too.”
Junior year, he had a setback early when a torn ligament in his hip forced him to aqua-train and do physical therapy. He returned in time for the sectionals and advanced to groups, where he placed 22nd and narrowly missed reaching the MOC.
“I definitely learned the importance of stretching, taking your cooldown seriously, taking stretching seriously,” SantaMaria said. “Now I’m more focused on proper eating and sleeping. I’m definitely healthier this year and I definitely think that’s helped me with running.”
SantaMaria ran all three seasons for the first time last year and it paid off with a new personal record in the 3,200 last spring. He followed that with a good summer of training with a veteran group of teammates.
“Coach Gould has a plan that he uses on all the kids,” SantaMaria said. “You work harder each year. With the team, we’ve been training a lot harder in the last couple years and we’ve all seen our times drop. This year, we’ve slowly been getting better and once championship season came around, we saw a couple times drop and I qualified which was great.”
SantaMaria had hoped to run faster at the group meet, but couldn’t be upset with qualifying for the MOC for the first time. It gives him another chance at the famed Holmdel course.
“He’s a coachable kid,” Gould said. “He fits the mold of Knight cross country very well. He’s talented, but he does a ton of work and is very dedicated to his sport and puts his miles in the bank and he works out hard and does long runs and gets the most out of his talent. He’s a very tough kid on race day. He doesn’t back down. He’s quiet, and he kind of speaks with his actions.”