Nottingham High’s Jon Torres joined the cross country team late, but found success in the sport.

When it comes to recent cross country runners in Hamilton Township, it appears the later one starts, the better they finish.

Prime examples are Steinert’s Sam Woolf and Nottingham’s Jon Torres, who completed outstanding careers that only totaled up to five years of running between them.

Woolf played field hockey her freshman year before opting for cross country as a sophomore. Although unable to reach the Meet of Champions, she qualified for the Groups meet all three seasons.

Torres took a step further. Although he ran distance in spring track, his first cross country season was last year and he suffered a leg injury that kept him from the state sectionals. This season, he not only reached the Meet of Champions, but earned a medal by finishing ninth out of 188 runners in the Nov. 18 race.

“Freshman year, coming in doing field hockey, which I really enjoyed, I didn’t see myself as a runner at all,” Woolf said. “Then sophomore year, I tried out for cross country and I just fell in love with the sport. I loved my teammates, and it was just such a great experience for me.”

As it was for Torres, whose high school career was brief but impactful.

“I would say overall my cross country career has been very successful,” he said. “I probably should have started running cross country sophomore year for a better experience but with just two years I was able to do very well. I’ve had the support of my teammates and coaches to help me get to where I am now. I am satisfied with how my season ended.”

As well he should be, considering he made himself one of the Top 10 runners in the state with virtually one full year of experience.

Torres was reluctant to try cross country and played soccer his first two autumns. Even now, he is more a track man than cross country, as he notes 5,000 meters through winding trails of nature is more challenging than 3,200 meters around an oval.

“There’s a very big difference,” Torres said. “It’s a lot more complicated running the 5K than running the two-mile on the track. But I’m used to running on grass from playing soccer, so the surface isn’t much of a difference. The hills are. They made a big impact, and the longer distance itself.”

“Spring track is his first love,” Nottingham coach Dave Tees said. “He realized cross country helped him in spring last season, and he was really excited about what he’s done this year. But running on the track, being part of relay teams, that’s what he really likes.”

Despite the increased challenges, Torres won the CVC Valley Division race last year and finished fifth in the Mercer County meet despite running with a stress fracture that kept him out of sectionals.

“(The injury) was just worsening, and it got to the point where I wasn’t able to train,” Torres said. “I would have to risk getting it hurt even more, so I decided to let it heal properly. I wasn’t going to get a good time anyway.”

Torres came back with a vengeance this season, finishing second to Hopewell’s Teddy Meredith by three seconds in the Mercer County meet with a 16:03 at Thompson Park in Jamesburg; and taking second in the Central Jersey Group III meet at Thompson in 20 fewer seconds.

Frigid weather became an issue at Holmdel Park in the Group III state meet as Torres stumbled to a time of 16:30 to finish in a four-way tie for 10th. Fortunately, the Northstar received a wild card invite to the MOC, which he made count with a ninth-place time of 16:07.

“The weather changed drastically the week going into Groups,” Tees said. “That was kind of tough. It was a shock for everybody. He gutted it out and was able to finish close enough for the wild card. It took a lot of guts and a lot of courage for him to do that. It was 32 degrees when his race went off, it was bone chilling; and he doesn’t like to run in that kind of temperature.”

Torres quickly concurred with that, saying, “Groups was a pretty bad race for me. It was cold, I’m not a big fan of the cold weather but it all worked out in the end. That’s what matters.”

It more than worked out, as a rise in temperature lit a fire under Torres, who stunned everyone at the MOC, including himself.

“It’s a great yet confusing feeling after placing Top 10,” he said. “I knew I would be able to place but I did not expect to bump so many runners. I knew I could go much faster than last week but I honestly did not expect to run as fast as I did. It feels great to have gotten the opportunity to run one last time and have a good race.”

Tees stood just outside the woods near the finish chute and began to count down runners as the emerged.

“I didn’t expect to see him in the early group, and all of a sudden he’s coming out in the Top 10,” Tees said. “To drop 18 seconds in a week’s training is unbelievable. He felt pretty good, he just had kind of an air about him that he was determined. He took it out really fast and just attacked the whole way and stayed up with that lead group.”

Torres felt the improved weather made a big difference, as he was able to run without layers of clothing, which allowed him to carry out his race plan to perfection.

“My strategy was to run with the fast group and then keep pushing myself after the hill,” he said. “Last week after the hill I lost the pack and I knew going into the race I would have to push myself to keep running hard after the hill. That was my strategy and it was successful. I was able to run the race I wanted to run.”

Sam Woolf

Brimming with confidence, Torres will gear up for winter and spring track and is also sorting through college offers. He has some impressive schools offering big-time scholarships, though he’d rather keep it quiet who he is considering.

Whoever gets him, will get a guy with guts.

“I’ve been coaching about 25 years, and he’s one of the toughest kids that I’ve coached,” Tees said. “He’s got a lot of heart, he’s very competitive. He studies times from around the state, and he’ll know when he’s going up against somebody that’s fast. That kind of raises his level to want to compete against the better kids in the state.”

Torres had a fan when it came to Woolf.

“I saw him during some portions of the sectionals meet,” she said. “He kind of came out of nowhere, but gosh, he seems like a really hard worker. I don’t know him personally but wow, what he did was great. I’m happy for him.”

Ironically, Woolf is the antithesis of Torres when it comes to running. This year’s balmy autumn did not provide her favorite conditions.

“The warm weather took a lot of adjustment,” she said. “I actually run better in cold weather than hot. But I’m happy overall with how I did.”

One thing Woolf has in common with Torres is a tough mindset.

“She’s a small girl, and she will do whatever she can to win,” Yacyk said. “She does what she has to do to succeed. That’s how she is. She’s not only a runner, she’s a black belt in karate, a swimmer. She’s an all-around girl.”

After winning the CVC’s Patriot Division championship race, Woolf finished 10th in the Mercer meet in 20:43. Two weeks later, she took an impressive 46 seconds off her time at Thompson Park by finishing fifth in the Central Jersey Group III meet.

Her cross country career came to a close at the Group III meet, where she ran a 21:07 to finish 43rd. After swimming in the winter, she will again run spring track.

“I didn’t get a PR at Groups, but I’m happy with how I ran,” Woolf said. “I ran it really hard and left everything out there. I felt I did pretty good.”

In looking at her career, Woolf enjoyed the Spartans’ family atmosphere as much as the competition.

“I really enjoyed just spending time with my teammates, and the team building,” she said. “I think we had a good group of people this year. We were really close, very supportive of one another. There were a few highlights, but honestly, I just enjoyed being with my teammates.”

Yacyk watched Woolf weave herself into the team fabric from the start, and will miss her leadership.

“She’s been our MVP for three years,” the coach said. “She’s worked extremely hard and she’s not only a great runner but just a great kid. She’s number one in her class and she does a lot of things for the community, a lot of things for the other students.”

Woolf’s special personality is known even at the opposite end of Klockner Road.

“She’s a good girl, she’s very kind,” Torres said. “I’ve been told she’s a really good friend, too, and very talented in many things. I didn’t see her race much, but I know she’s a good runner and she works hard.”

And like Torres, she did good things after a late start.