Sean Dolan, the team’s No. 2 runner

While proving that winning is not everything, the Hopewell Valley Central High School boys’ cross country team can safely be termed a big winner in 2017.

The Bulldogs could not quite claim a major post-season championship in four attempts, but were one of the top teams in every event and finished as the third best squad in New Jersey.

What made Hopewell so impressive is that the teams it did not beat in big meets, it overtook in the biggest race of all. HoVal finished second to Princeton in the Mercer County Championships, was third behind Mendham and West Windsor-Plainsboro North in North Jersey II Group III, and took second behind Mendham in the Group III states.

HoVal put them all in the rear view mirror at the Nov. 18 NJSIAA Meet of Champions at Holmdel Park, finishing third in the state behind Christian Brothers Academy and Kingsway. Defending champion Princeton was fourth and Mendham fifth.

“Our team performed very well,” said junior Sean Dolan, the team’s No. 2 runner. “We have been working for a big run at MOC since the first day of July, and to see it all come together on that day is just a great thing.”

No. 1 runner Teddy Meredith added that, “We weren’t really expecting to beat Princeton, but it was a pleasant surprise.”

Hopewell did have one impressive victory, winning the Varsity D division of the prestigious Shore Coaches Invitational in October. The third-place finish was its best at the MOC in John Zalot’s 12 years as head coach, and he felt it was the highlight of the season to date. The Bulldogs were scheduled to run in the Northeast Regionals in New York on Nov. 25.

“They surprised a lot of people who know cross country,” Zalot said. “To put together a race like that was impressive. The guys ran great. Princeton and our team have a friendly rivalry. They are a great team from their coach through to their runners. To come back at the MOC and beat them was nice. It gave the team a new found confidence.”

Both runners and coaches felt this could be a big year for the Bulldogs, based off who they had returning. The top six of Meredith, Dolan, junior Will Titus and seniors Michael Pavicic and Tim Dolan all enjoyed success last year in cross country and spring track.

“The hopes coming into the season were to win as much as we possibly could,” Sean Dolan said. “We wanted to be contenders for county, sectional, and group titles. We also wanted to be one of the top teams in the state, and have a top-five finish at MOC as a team. We realized we had a great deal of talent on our team and we wanted to chase our potential and thrive as a team.”

Which they did, putting it all together at Meet of Champions. Meredith was sixth in 15:57, followed by Sean Dolan (19th, 16:19), Titus (48th, 16:43), Pavicic (56th, 16:47) and Tim Dolan (16:50).

“Although we placed second at the state meet, it speaks a lot to the resolve of the team to bounce back with such a great finish to the New Jersey cross country season,” Zalot said. “Coming into the season, we knew we had something special. The team has been training since July. From the beginning, we wanted to win states and make it to the Meet of Champions as a team.”

Missing out on the state title made it tough for Zalot to say whether or not the team reached its full potential.

“In some regards, we did not, since we did not win states,” he said. “But in other ways we surpassed it. In the beginning of the season, we knew if we were going to reach our goals, we needed to stay healthy and to have our best races at the end of the season. We sat our top guys out for most of the season. This helped them to stay focused on the training and stay healthy. For our guys to have their best race at the Meet of Champs was awesome.”

Meredith’s medal-winning performance capped a tremendous personal season. He won the Mercer County meet (16:00) and NJ2 III sectionals (15:26), finished second at Shore Coaches (16:17) and fourth in states (16:11).

In discussing his MOC race, Teddy said, “I did better than I thought. I went into the race looking for a 10th-place finish and came out with a sixth-place finish so I was really happy. I wanted to go out a little hard so I didn’t get stuck in the pack, then ease up, and then trail with some guys who I knew I was about the same speed as.”

Which was exactly how it played out.

“Teddy ran his race very well,” Zalot said. “To break sixteen minutes at Holmdel is quite an accomplishment. He has been training well all year despite having an injury early on. It’s nice to see him have great races back to back.”

Meredith will take his considerable talents with him when he graduates, while Tim Dolan will take his equally considerable leadership abilities.

“Tim is the one pushing and he does a really good job during workouts,” Meredith said. “He always makes sure we’re doing all the reps at the right pace, making sure we do the right runs at the right pace. He’s a good teammate.”

From the sound of it, it was an entire squad of good teammates.

“It was an absolute honor to run for this team this year,” Sean Dolan said. “We are really going to miss Tim, Michael and Teddy next year. Our whole team is very close and we hang out a lot outside of practice. We would often push each other on runs and during workouts because we knew we had the ability to be competitive on the state level.”

They were certainly right about that.