The Lawrence High School girls’ cross country team smiles after the Central Jersey Group III meet at Thompson Park. Left to right: head coach Liz Guarini, Valandra Rigatoni, Katie Toole, Molly Lutolf, Samantha Staub, Anna Kolomatskaia, Sara Kuwar and Madeline Weeks.

Slowly but surely, head coach Liz Guarini is laying a solid foundation for the Lawrence High girls’ cross country program.

For the third straight season, the Cardinals placed in the Top 5 at the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III sectional meet, advancing them to the state meet. And while they did slip two spots in states, from 15th to 17th, they also showed improvement in the Mercer County meet by placing seventh and finishing ahead of rival Robbinsville. In the Valley Division meet, the Cardinals finished second, slightly behind the Ravens.

The best news is, of the top seven runners, only senior Valandra Riggins is graduating.

“Finishing second in our division and finally beating Robbinsville at the county meet was a big accomplishment for the girls,” Guarini said. “We’re getting a lot of returners next year that we hope will win the division. That’s what one of our goals are. So beating Robbinsville at counties was a step in the right direction. And finishing seventh was the highest they’ve placed in a long time. So we’re going in the right direction.”

Sophomore Madeline Weeks felt Guarini’s approach made a big difference.

“I think the season went really well,” Weeks said. “I think the main reason it went so well is because Coach G really focused on us working together as a team and on pack running. Not really focusing just on the individual, but all of us playing a part of getting to this.

“Even though only the top five count (in state meets), she told us the six and seven runners still played a big part if they could pass the other team’s top five people. She made us feel everyone had a part to play. She said even if you’re not racing you could cheer, you could help time. Everyone has a role to play. I feel like that was the main thing that helped us get to where we are.”

Conversely, Guarini felt the team’s desire to buy into running as a pack played into it just as much.

“Watching them kind of figure out this whole cross country thing is pretty great,” the coach said. “They understand the whole pack running scheme, so they’re getting better at doing that. The girls work together, they push each other, they just have a great camaraderie about them, and (Weeks) is a big reason we have that.”

Weeks assumed the mantle of No. 1 runner this year after being number three as a freshman. A Colorado import who arrived in Lawrence seven years ago, Weeks was 14th in the counties (20:35) at Washington Crossing and sixth in sectionals at Thompson Park in Jamesburg (20:43). After finishing 70th in last year’s states her goal was the top 40, and she took 38th.

“The way she runs, she always looks relaxed and never looks frazzled when she’s competing, which is great,” Guarini said. “She’s constantly trying to do better than what she was the previous season, which is great. She kind of has that quiet calm about her. Every time she steps on the course you know you’re going to see something great from her, which is great since she’s only a sophomore. So we’re definitely excited to see what she can do as a junior and a senior. She’s leading the girls in a positive way.”

Andrea Weeks, who ran high school and collegiate cross country in Colorado, prodded her daughter to try the sport in middle school. Weeks decided to go for it, since there wasn’t a lot of pressure.

“At the intermediate school it wasn’t a set sport,” Weeks said. “So it was like ‘Oh cool, playing sports!’ and I thought cross country seemed like a cool sport.”

Part of it had to do with the low-key atmosphere created by her coaches.

“I was a little nervous at first but I did like it because the coaches had the mentality, especially at the middle school, where everyone was just having fun,” she said. “The middle school is a nice encouraging ‘keep going’ thing and Coach G definitely added with the whole team attitude. I felt it was always a positive experience. I also like that there’s an individual aspect and a team aspect to it.”

“And,” she added with a laugh, “it also kind of helped I was getting good at it.”

Checking in at number two was Riggins, who was 14th in counties (20:52) and 17th in sectionals (21:29).

“She ran really great at counties, she finally broke 21 (minutes) so that was like a big deal for her,” Guarini said. “At sectionals she ran pretty well. She wasn’t 100 percent satisfied with her race result, but she’s similar to Maddy that she kind of has that calm about her while she’s racing. She was a big piece of why, as a team, we did what we did.”

Rounding out the top seven were junior Katie Toole, a captain along with Riggins and senior Darlin Jimenez, sophomores Molly Lutolf and Samantha Staub, and freshman Anna Kolomatskaia.

“For the most part, Maddy and Valandra kind of ran together with a little separation between the two,” Guarini said. “And then we had Sara, Molly and Katie trying to form a pack, so they pushed each other. At counties Molly and Sara ran with each other, which helped us big time. They ran big races that day.

“And it was exciting for everyone to watch the division race. Last year Robbinsville ran in a pack the whole race and maintained it with no issues. This year they had to compete against us because of our top two girls pushing the whole race. It really changed the whole dynamic to it. We definitely turned some heads this year.”

With such a young group, they hope to keep turning them in the years to come. After making states, the goal is to now start placing higher and, perhaps even make it to the Meet of Champions.

And maybe even higher.

“It was funny,” Guarini said. “Maddy was asking how teams qualify for Nationals. “She’s not even thinking Meet of Champs, she’s thinking of that next level. So that’s kind of cool. I’m like ‘That’s what I’m talking about!’ I want them to dream big. But Meet of Champs would be a heck of an accomplishment if we could do that.”

Weeks isn’t dreaming quite so big for next year, however, as she tries keeping it in perspective.

“It would definitely be helpful to be in fourth or third at the sectionals, not just be in fifth and on the edge, wondering if we’re gonna move on,” she said. “It’s gotta be more up there, like ‘Yes, we know we are moving on.’ For groups, I feel like we have to try and slowly make progress and get closer (to advancing). I think it will take a while to get to the Meet of Champions, but we’ll keep working at it.”

Guarini has no doubt about that, as she watches the spirit of her young team ripen each day.

“They’re getting it,” she said. “They understand what it takes and what they need to do moving forward. I would expect in July we’ll be out there, getting more miles in and be ready to roll.”