A number of Lawrence High School girls’ cross country runners advanced to sectionals and qualified for the group meet this season. Left to right: coach Elizabeth Guarini, Afreen Satarawalla, Margaret Tran, Molly Lutolf, Sofia Centeno, Valandra Riggins, Madeline Weeks and Katie Toole.

Lawrence High School has had ample track and field success over the years, but girls’ cross country has been a somewhat different story. It is a tale that energetic Liz Guarini is trying to rewrite.

She got off to a nice start in her first year as the program’s head coach, guiding the Cardinals to a 7-6 dual meet record (3-1 in the CVC Patriot Division) and a second consecutive berth in the NJSIAA Group III Championships. After finishing 20th out of 20 teams in 2016, the Cardinals rose to 15th at Holmdel Park on Nov. 11.

Lawrence advanced to Groups by finishing fourth in Central Jersey Group III. It marked the first time in school history the Lawrence girls reached the state meet in two straight seasons.

“Qualifying for Groups was great and they ran much better at sectionals than they did the year before,” Guarini said. “Adding Colts Neck to the sectional made things a lot more competitive. The girls really ran strong at the big meets when it mattered. They really stepped up and grew as a group.”

One of the keys was the addition of ninth-graders Madeline Weeks and Molly Lutolf.

“Having two freshmen come along and kind of be the future, really pushed the older girls,” Guarini said. “Overall I couldn’t be happier with the performance of the whole team. Everyone ran really, really well and improved throughout the season.”

The Cardinals top runner was, like her coach, a latecomer to cross country. Guarini began running for Steinert as a junior and was so good she went on to compete for Rowan University.

Senior Sofia Centeno also just started last year, and was the Cardinals No. 1 runner in every race but one. She had been running the 800 and 400 in track.

“I never thought of myself as a long distance runner,” Centeno said. “Middle distance is what I’ve focused on for the entirety of high school and I love it. However, during the fall I have always taken a break as it has been my off-season. My coach, Mr. (Tim) Collins, was the one who brought it to my attention to join cross country as it could potentially help for the spring season.”

Centeno was the team’s anchor this year. She ran a 20:58 to finish 27th in the Mercer County Meet at Thompson Park. She dropped 29 seconds off her time in finishing 11th in 20:29 at the CJ III meet, which is an LHS record at Thompson. In running the much tougher Holmdel course in states, Centeno ran a 21:36.

“She’s a very talented runner,” Guarini said. “Last year, it was about her getting out of her comfort zone, running longer than four or five miles. This year it was kind of getting confidence in herself. As she kept finding success, especially at sectionals and counties, she started to realize ‘OK, I don’t consider myself a cross country runner,’ but that clearly she has talent for it. I think it’s going to carry over to winter and spring track.”

After seeing what she has accomplished in just two years of fall training, Centeno wishes she had started earlier. She actually surprised herself by going out for track as a freshman—another thing she never thought she would do.

“Once I did, I found something I was passionate about and devoted my time to track and swim,” she said, “Sophomore year was a very successful year as I had both great swim and track seasons. Before this, I never thought cross country would be a part of my high school career as running 5Ks seemed to be a big stretch.

“However, now that the fall season of senior year has come to an end, I look back and wish I could have begun this journey earlier. Never did it cross my mind that I could be a cross country record holder at Lawrence High School.”

‘We have three of our top five runners coming back. We’re going in the right direction.’

Following Centeno were junior Valandra Riggins, followed closely by Weeks. Riggins finished 19th in the sectionals at 21:02 and Weeks was 21st at 21:08. The two flip-flopped at states with Weeks running 21:42 and Riggins 22:08.

Sophomore Katie Toole, who came out for cross country after tearing her ACL in soccer last year, became a strong addition as the No. 4 runner.

“She impressed me at times,” Guarini said. “She’s not really a distance runner. But she came out and was out there in the summer heat running miles and she’s very consistent for us too.”

Rounding out the Top 5 was senior Margaret Tran, while sophomore Celia Marsh ran well at the county meet but was beset by health issues for sectionals. Lutolf eagerly took her spot, but was unable to run in states due to having her wisdom teeth out.

Guarini was encouraged by the fact that her top three runners began to form a pack as the season went along, but feels things have to get even tighter next year.

“The biggest thing we have to work on is that gap between three, and then four and five,” the coach said. “Probably our biggest weakness this year was that time distance between the third runner and the four-five runners. Usually four and five were together but there was that gap and that’s where other teams got in there and kind of beat us up a little bit.”

Guarini felt that the Cardinals were beginning to figure it out as the season went on.

“To watch them during races where a girl would be like ‘C’mon, you have to get up here with me,’ and the girl getting up there and them pushing together was kind of great to see,” she said.

The 15-girl roster was Lawrence’s largest in years and included numerous first-year runners. Centeno was proud of the entire team and the way the newcomers dedicated their time to the sport.

“Cross country is a mentally draining and physically exhausting sport that not everyone can handle,” she said. “I hope they realized hard work really pays off as we saw personal records and results by the end of the season. I am happy to say we placed at sectionals and advanced to Groups two years in a row for the first time in Lawrence history.”

Centeno is also pleased to say that things could be even better for the Cardinals in the coming years.

“Despite the fact that four of us are leaving, there are underclassmen who have the ability to place us higher than we ever have before,” Sofia said. “With proper training and a positive mentality, I cannot wait to see all that the cross country team will accomplish. I am grateful to have been a part this family, and for their allowance in leading them as a captain.”

They are busy hands as well, as Guarini is leaving her fingerprints all over the program after just one season. She is researching as much as possible about team records and standouts, and hopes to get in touch with Beth Starr — a mid-1980’s performer still regarded as the school’s best female distance runner — in hopes of getting information on her teams.

Despite her distance running background, Guarini served as a sprints and jumps coach in track at West Windsor-Plainsboro North before doing the same at Lawrence for the previous three years.

“I loved working with them and you’re always learning something in track,” she said. “But cross country is my absolute favorite sport to coach.”

Guarini noted that this year’s middle school program had a combined 45 boys and girls running. Since she serves as guidance counselor at the middle school, Guarini is already recruiting for next year.

“The big issue has been the number of kids coming out for the team,” she said. “We had 15 but in years past they wouldn’t even have enough to score. That was consistently happening. I try to talk to them at the middle school and get them to come out. A lot of them freak out, they’re like ‘Oh my gosh 3.1 miles, I can’t do that!’ They don’t understand there’s a building process to it. I’m not gonna make them run eight miles in day one.

“But we had six freshmen this year. We have three of our top five runners coming back. We’re going in the right direction.”