If you need to tell Hopewell cross country runners Sam (left) and Gavin Fowler apart, just look at their wrists. Sam wears one wristband, while Gavin wears several. (Photo by Rich Fisher.)

After having several individual standouts over the past few seasons, the Hopewell Valley Central High School boys’ cross country team will be more reliant on an overall group effort this year to try and win a fourth straight Colonial Valley Conference Valley Division title and gain another state berth.

That makes leadership even more necessary, and coach Aaron Oldfield is blessed with a double dose of leaders to fill the void left by Sean Dolan, the state’s 12th best cross country runner in 2018. Senior twin brothers Sam and Gavin Fowler may not have Dolan’s talent (few do), but they have the respect of their teammates and the rare honor of being named Bulldog captains.

They also happen to be the team’s No. 1 and No. 2 runners.

“They’ve been in the shadows of the Dolans and Tituses and O’Connors,” Oldfield said. “They’re not as good as those guys, but they do a good job of leadership. They did a good job of learning from graduates who had so much success. They’ve done a fantastic job of taking the torch from those guys and making sure we haven’t missed a beat.”

Which is often not as easy as it sounds.

“It’s tough in today’s society,” Oldfield continued. “Some kids don’t want to listen to other kids, and some kids don’t want to talk to kids in a certain way. But these two are outgoing. They are really good kids, they’re trustworthy. They got the team to buy into what we’re doing. They’re really what captains should be but what many kids aren’t because they’re worried what other people think. These guys are just worried about the team and the program.”

Which is why they earned their rare distinction.

“It’s pretty well known at Hopewell that we don’t have captains per say because I don’t believe in them,” Oldfield said. “If you care about a program you’re gonna be a leader regardless if you’re anointed that title. These guys are really passionate and care about our program.”

They care about their schoolwork as well, as both have grade point averages in the 90s (out of 100) and plan on some high powered majors in college. Sam is looking at Lafayette for mechanical or electrical engineering, while Gavin wants to major in astrophysics at Colgate. Both are hoping to run cross country and maybe track at the college level. If not, they will still run in clubs or on their own.

For now, they are concerned with helping the Bulldogs maintain their success after winning division and Central Jersey Group III titles last year.

“I’ve definitely been looking more toward the team goals,” Sam said. “I want our team to continue our annual winning of the division, that’s what I’m really looking forward to. Last year we won sectionals because of all the amazing runners we had the last few years. It’s a huge task this year but we’ll see how it goes.”

Gavin added that, “I’m hoping to win the division. My goal isn’t necessarily to win sections but I want our team finishing high enough where we move on to groups again, which is a possibility but we gotta work hard for it.”

As for their own individual goals, the Fowlers are just looking to run consistently and keep improving their individual times. Sam’s personal record coming into the season was a 17:39 at Thompson Park in Jamesburg, while Gavin’s was a 17:50 at the Mercer County Championships at Washington Crossing.

“It’s kind of funny, my mom always roots for me during the races because Sam tends to beat me often,” Gavin said with a laugh. “Whenever I’m close, my mom always cheers for me.”

Gavin, who can be distinguished from Sam by his longer hair in the front and the multiple wristbands he wears, has actually been in the sport longer. Both played baseball growing up but that wasn’t working out for Gavin.

“In sixth grade I wanted to create my own identity,” he said. “I wasn’t really that good in baseball, I kind of wanted to try something different so I decided on track.”

His first year, ironically, he met Sean and Teddy Dolan when they were doing high jump, of all things. None would end up making their mark in that event.

During seventh grade, Gavin would be bored at certain away meets because other schools didn’t have high jump pits.

“I’d go and do nothing,” he said. “One day I just asked the distance coach Mr. (John) Zalot if I could go do the 800. I didn’t win, but I did pretty well. I was like, ‘I’ll try this distance stuff.’ I kind of knew some of the kids there, like Tyler Kingsbury.”

He was a full-fledged 800 runner in 8th grade and Will Titus, who was already a distance runner at HVCHS, convinced him to try cross country, which he began as a freshman and never looked back.

While at Timberlane, Sam continued with baseball until his seventh-grade gym teacher noticed he had pretty good speed and suggested he try cross country or track.

“I was like ‘Sure I’ll try cross country’ and I had a lot of fun,” he said. “I came to high school on transition day (to meet school club members) and the team was so welcoming. It seemed like a lot of fun so they convinced me to continue on.”

During their first three years, the brothers watched as their talented older teammates made Hopewell one of the area’s premiere programs. During that time, the Fowlers put in the work while also watching and studying.

“One thing I learned was to work hard,” Sam said. “All those guys worked really hard. and I also learned a lot about how they trained. I’ve also taken a lot from how they dealt with problems.”

The brothers have not only assumed that role, but are thankful to have each other to share it with, making the whole process enjoyable.

“It’s really fun just being able to lead stretches and stuff like that,” Gavin said. “After doing warm-ups and doing this for three years now, going into my fourth I know the layout of the land and know how things should be done.”

Like most brothers, the two have a friendly but fierce competition with each other.

“I’d say it’s pretty intense,” Sam said. “We like to push each other, making sure that on a run we’re always hitting paces and making sure if one of us might pick it up, the other picks it up. In workouts you’ll see it a lot. One of us might be struggling and it just makes it worse when the other one is doing so well. There’s definitely some competition.”

There is also support.

“Definitely,” Sam said. “On runs, if we’re going too slow one of us will shout out that it was too slow or we’ll be yelling out the times to get the other one going.”

When they are not on the run, the twins are teaming up to make their little corner of the world a better place. Both are Eagle Scouts and have taken an avid interest in Special Olympics. They ran it with Hopewell’s unified team as sophomores and juniors, and last year they attended the Special Olympics in Toronto.

“That was a lot of fun,” Gavin said. “We helped out all the kids with special needs and we raced alongside them in the 4×100. Helping them out, helping see them achieve their goals and become better runners was a lot of fun.”

They also started a non-profit organization called Hopewell Gives Back, which was featured on Channel 6 Action News in Philadelphia. The theme is to convince people to volunteer by bringing in other non-profits to explain an activity and how people can help the cause.

“The first year we got four non-profits to come and 50 people,” Gavin said. “The next year we got over 100 people to come.”

And while the brothers make a dynamic force together, they realize it’s time to go their separate ways after high school.

“That’s definitely something to get used to, not having a constant friend nearby,” Sam said. “It’s definitely gonna be a learning curve.”

Gavin agrees, but thinks they are up for the challenge.

“I don’t think it’s going to be something crazy,” he said, adding with a smile, “I think we can live without each other for a while.”