It’s hard to say who made the bigger leap this year.
The Bordentown Regional High boys cross country team, or its senior runner, Renzo Almeida?
Then again, maybe the progress of one helped spark the improvement of the other.
In just his second year of running cross country, Almeida emerged as the Scotties top runner and helped pace them to heights never reached before.
As a team, Bordentown went 15-1 in dual meets and its lone loss was by one point when No. 2 runner Tyler Gentry was sick and ran a sub-par race.
For the first time since moving up from the small-school Freedom Division, Bordentown won the Patriot Division title at the Burlington County Division Meet in New Egypt. The Scotties top finisher in that Oct. 23 event was Almeida with a personal best time of 16 minutes, 54 seconds, which placed him second in the division and 10th among overall finishers. A year ago, he was 13th in the division with a time of 18:42.
On Nov. 9 at Thompson Park in Jamesburg, the historic season continued when Almeida ran a 17:06 to finish 14th in the NJSIAA
Central Jersey Group II Championships, making him the first Scottie to ever qualify for the Group II states meet (the top 15 advance). Bordentown ran in Group I until four years ago. Last year, he was 57th in Group II with a time of 19:32.
What in the world happened to this guy?
“He had a good summer,” coach Brian Wheeler said. “He works hard. He has a sister that is a freshman now, he was able to work with her in the summertime. He definitely showed he put in a lot of hard work over time. He’s a coach’s dream. He was somebody that came in the first day in practice in shape. Some kids nowadays come in without running in the summer, without being active at all. Their first day of practice they think is the first day of cross country season. It’s not, it starts back in June. That’s something he did.
“You had a sense, talking to the other runners, that they saw it too. Our first day we had a time trial and he did well in that. It was a mile-and-a-half and I believe he did an 8:17.”
For Almeida, it was a case of making up for lost time. He did not discover track until the winter of his sophomore year and, at the time, he decided to be a sprinter.
“My good friends were doing it so I decided to do it as well,” he said. “I figured if they could do it, I could do it. I did sprints, and I was not good at all. I started doing long distances in spring track and started to get better. I like the long distances.”
Thus, last year he decided to try cross country, which was a complete learning experience. Renzo hung in, however, and eventually decided that he would give it all he had once spring track ended.
“I was training really hard over the summer, I really enjoyed it,” he said. “It was the hardest summer ever for me because I had to put in all the hard work and training every single day. I just ran a lot. Tempo runs, long runs, medium runs. Sometimes on the track, sometimes on the treadmill.”
He estimated running 60 to 80 miles per week, which did not surprise Wheeler in the least.
“I had him in class a couple years ago and the same thing happened in class that happened on the course – he just showed he’s a hard worker,” the coach said. “He works hard in practice, he does everything. He doesn’t fool around. Every test he does, every dynamic he does he takes it seriously.”
Proof of that hard work came early on Oct. 18 in the Burlington County Open at Willingboro’s Mill Creek Park. Almedia finished 13th in 17:24 in a race loaded with talent. He improved from a 57th-place finish and a time of 19:32 as a junior.
From there he had further success in the division and sectional races by following Wheeler’s game plan.
“It was very good strategy,” he said. “I stayed with my teammates for the first mile or so, and then later on I went all out.”
His season ended at the Group II meet, where he ran a 17:46 at Holmdel Park on one of the state’s most challenging courses. While Almeida was happy to be running in states, he would have liked to had some company.
“He’s a very good team player,” Wheeler said. “We actually felt that the team was gonna make it to states. Unfortunately we fell short (by two places) and he took it pretty hard. I was trying to make him feel better that he made it to states but he was still upset that the team didn’t get there. I love that; that he worries more about the team than about himself.”
There were precious few things to worry about with the Scotties this year as a solid nucleus of underclassmen returned and got a boost from Almeida’s surge to excellence. At the Patriot Division meet, Gentry, a junior, finished third (17:15, followed by senior Greg Poole (6th, 17:41), junior Rishi Machanpali (7th, 17:48), junior Nicholas Eiffert (10th, 18:10), senior Arshvir Singh (11th, 18:20) and freshman Evan Cooper (17th, 18:52).
“I knew I was gonna have a good team, but I didn’t know how good,” Wheeler said. “It’s not just (the top seven) though. We had 10 guys that could break 20 minutes. And Renzo getting so much better definitely helped us.”
Almeida felt his comrades improved right along with him.
“My team just got way better,” he said. “It was just a lot of fun.”