South cross country runner Sameer Das shows off the 8th place medal he won at this year’s Meet of Champions.

It should come as no surprise that Sameer Das made a huge leap this fall. He was a high jumper in middle school.

The West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South junior has found his niche not in high jump, but in distance running. He emerged as the top runner for the Pirate boys team this fall, and went on to place eighth for a medal at the Meet of Champions.

“The season had its ups and downs,” said Das, who ran 16:06 at the MOC. “I was ecstatic about Meet of Champions with my eighth-place finish. It was just unbelievable to me.”

Das didn’t even run cross country as a freshman. He did track, however, and that kicked off his distance running. He came out last year for cross country for the first time, and only moved up to varsity after winning the junior varsity race at the Mercer County Championships. He placed 50th at sectionals.

“My sophomore season really fell short of my expectations,” Das said. “Coming into this year, I had a huge chip on my shoulder and I felt like I had a lot to prove.”

Das found another level when he got into the state meets. He was ninth at the Shore Coaches Invitational and ninth again at the Mercer County Championships, but two weeks later he placed third at the Central Jersey Group IV meet in a new personal best of 15:50. He overcame bursitis in his hip, a mid-season growth spurt and the diagnosis of Osgood-Schlatter Disease that made running painful.

“I was on the elliptical only three days before the sectionals race,” Das said. “That sectionals race was the first time where I felt capable of doing something big this season.”

He was disappointed with a 16:21 clocking for 12th at the Group IV state meet, but he and the Pirates advanced to the Meet of Champions. WW-P South received one of the three wild-card entries, and Das made the most of it. He ran strong from the start and put himself well ahead of where anyone could have guessed.

“When I started looking around and seeing the guys I was racing with, I don’t think I was expecting it, and I don’t think they were expecting me to be there,” Das said. “I wasn’t in any of the rankings. There were four different guys who did different predictions for the top 10, and I wasn’t in any of those. I’m pretty sure if they did a top 20, I wouldn’t have been in those either. My performance at groups, it wasn’t that impressive. It wasn’t a true indication of the runner I am. It was nice to surprise myself and be the kid that no one had ever seen before.”

Das was the top finisher for the Pirates, who placed eighth in the team standings. Adhwin Sridhar was 54th, Ryan Joseph took 77th, Andrew Ma placed 98th, Austin True was 106th, Justin Lopez ran to 133rd and Tim Magoun was 143rd.

“Physically we were there,” said Pirates head coach Kurt Wayton. “It’s tough to explain to people that don’t see what the coaches and athletes see day in and day out. I thought we were a top three team. We just couldn’t find the way to compete down the stretch except for a few athletes. It’s something I’ll have to deal with.”

Joseph, Ma and Magoun will have to be replaced from the top seven after graduation, but the other four will be returning with plenty of big-race experience. Das is looking forward to his senior year.

“Overall, it was a breakthrough season,” Das said. “I think there’s room for huge improvement, not only for me, but for the team next year.”

Wayton was encouraged by the progress of Das. The longtime coach said he is happy with the way that Das has responded to the challenge of meeting his potential.

“He might be one of the more dramatic stories we’ve had,” Wayton said. “We’ve had kids come from pretty mediocre origins that were able to cash in on the promise. He’s had promise from the get-go. He has racing confidence and racing savvy. It was a matter of him embracing it.”

‘It motivates me to see how far I’ve come, and to see the places that I started.’

Das’s confidence could have been lost years ago when he first went out for track and field. He was cut in sixth grade.

“I wanted to give distance a try,” Das recalled. “I ran the mile. I really pushed myself, and I didn’t end up doing that bad. But there were a bunch of sixth graders that ended up making the cut over me. It’s a small thing, but it definitely fueled me.”

He returned to the middle school team in 7th and 8th grade and primarily high jumped while also running the occasional 400 meters. When he came out for track in 9th grade at South, he left high jump for distance running.

“I knew there was a limit with my high jumping,” Das said. “My parents got really excited about it, and I said, ‘I’ve got to realistic about my genetics. I’m a 5’10”, scrawny Indian kid. There’s an upper limit to that.’ I knew how good our distance program was at South. I liked the idea that the coach spread. I bought into it really quickly.”

He started to see improvement on the track, and he felt he could improve more with a deeper dedication.

“What I learned is running is about being all-in or all-out,” Das said. “That’s something that our coach has emphasized day in and day out. That’s something he’s emphasized whether you’re in C group or the top of A group. You’re never going to get the results you want if you’re not going in there every single day dedicating yourself and sacrificing yourself to the team.”

Das went all in this summer, pouring his energy into running to prepare for his second season of cross country. He kept a running journal and tried to get the proper amount of rest and eat well. He returned with a new focus that hadn’t been there before and made it possible for him to achieve what others had not seen in him.

“What I saw was a strong correlation between hard work and results,” Das said. “It didn’t matter what my training was. It’s part of the culture of our team. Whenever I race, I just told myself I’d give 100 percent of myself and leave nothing up to chance. I fell in love with racing, which I learned to challenge my limits. That’s what inspired me to keep going.”

He’s the latest success story in a South program that has found runners who were able to emerge over their final two years of high school. Das wanted to be a part of that rich history.

“He asked what Nikhil (Pulimood), Brian Leung, Brian Schoepfer, Tim Bason, Sam Macaluso had done to be a champion,” Wayton said. “He was curious about what was keeping him from being the very best. Most kids don’t ask that question. As a coach and educator, that’s so important. It shows the child is willing to achieve. He’s emulated the best of the best guys.”

Das continues to push to be mentioned with the top runners of the past. He finished his year at the Nike Cross Nationals Northeast Regional, and has plenty to build on as he prepares for track and his final season of cross country at WW-P South.

“It motivates me to see how far I’ve come, and to see the places that I started,” Das said.