The Hopewell Valley Central High School boys’ cross country team get ready for the Mercer County Track Championships, held Oct. 19, 2018 in Washington Crossing State Park. Pictured are (front row) John O’Connor, Sean Dolan, Will Titus and Alex Dumont and (back row) Elliot Bangarter (obscured), Gavin Fowler and Sam Fowler. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

The question was posed to Hopewell Valley Central High boys cross country coach John Zalot and his top two runners, seniors Sean Dolan and Will Titus.

Is it better to finish third in the Meet of Champions but not win any titles one season; or to not reach the MOC but win a sectional championship the next?

The answers were a bit varied. For Dolan and Zalot, it’s all good.

“They are both great in different ways,” said Dolan, who finished 12th in the MOC running as an individual, with a time of 16:08. “Last year it was all about peaking and having our best race as a team at the Meet of Champions. But this year our mentality was a little different. Since we had lost some great athletes due to graduation, our plan this year was just to take it race by race, and run our best every time we were out there.”

Zalot concurred with his Villanova-bound standout.

“Both scenarios are rewarding,” the coach said. “It was awesome to take third at the Meet of Champions last year (the highest place ever for HVCHS boys), and equally rewarding to win sectionals.”

Titus, whose top college choices include Princeton and Duke, saw it a bit differently. “Running at MOCs is an experience unlike any other, and we got to experience that as a team last year,” said Titus, who finished 54th in the MOC as an individual this year, with a time of 16:52. “It would have been great to win a group or sectional title as well, but our goal last year was always to be running at MOC regardless of how well we did in the other meets. Finishing third at MOC meant more to me than winning a group or sectional title because it demonstrated that we had established Hopewell as a competitive team.”

There was still a feeling of achievement from winning Central Jersey Group III this year. After a third-place finish in the Mercer County meet, in which it finished five points behind West Windsor-Plainsboro North at Washington Crossing Park, HoVal flipped the script by defeating the Northern Knights by eight in the CJ III meet at Jamesburg’s Thompson Park.

Not bad for a team that had plenty of holes to fill due to graduation. Thus, Titus was in no means downplaying the achievement.

“Winning a sectional title was very meaningful because it came as a surprise,” he said. “We went into that race just trying to survive and make it to Groups, but all the guys came through with great races to secure the win.”

Dolan (16:51), Titus (16:59) and senior John O’Connor (17:05) finished 3-4-5, while senior Alex Dumont (17th, 17:57) and junior Elliot Bangarter (34th, 18:26) rounded out the top five scorers. Also running well were the junior twin brothers Sam Fowler (18:37) and Gavin Fowler (18:40).

“It meant a whole lot to win CJ III this year,” Dolan said. “We had not won a sectional title in so long, that I feel like our program was finally due for one after having some great athletes throughout the years.”

Zalot noted that by winning a title, there will always be proof of accomplishment in the gym.

“The trophy and the banner at the school will leave a lasting mark about the quality of this team,” the coach said. “Overall it has been a very good season. Coming into the season, I did not expect to do as well as we did because we lost so much from last year.”

The team was led by its four seniors, who all served as captains. It was Titus’ third year in that role.

“What I focused on most was building team camaraderie with the underclassmen and making sure the team maintained a strong work ethic; I believe the two go hand-in-hand,” Titus said. “We went above and beyond what we had hoped by winning sectionals. We were certainly disappointed to not make it to MOC as a team, but we also recognized that this year would be different from last year because we lost three of our top seven guys. The juniors who filled in their spots played a huge role in the success and stepped up to help the team make it as far as we did.”

Titus and Dolan certainly did their job as leaders on and off the course. The two finished 3-9 in the counties (with O’Connor taking 12th) to help Hopewell finish ahead of MOC qualifier Princeton.

“Third at the MCT is very good,” Zalot said. “Our county is one of the toughest. We have talented runners and coaches that make for impressive teams who earn a lot of respect and success outside of the county.”

And while the Bulldogs’ sixth-place finish in the Group III meet was not enough to garner a wild card berth into the Meet of Champions, Top 10 finishes by Dolan (7th, 16:24) and Titus (10th, 16:43) gained the two automatic entry as individuals.

“It meant a lot to be able to run at the Meet of Champions again,” Dolan said. “The meet gets more and more competitive every year, so it has been an absolute honor to represent Hopewell Valley season after season.”

Titus spent nine months cross-training on a stationary bike and elliptical machine to overcome “a stubborn injury” that kept him from running since last November. Upon returning in August, his ultimate goal was to be at the MOC one way or another.

“But back in August, I doubted if I would even still be running at this point in the season,” he said. “To have qualified for MOC as an individual just felt awesome – I don’t think there are any words to describe how grateful I am to have made it that far. I feel extremely fortunate just to have had the opportunity to toe the line (at MOC) when three months ago I wasn’t even sure if I’d still be running at that point.”

It seemed to fit in nicely with the overall picture for the team — surpassing expectations.