By Tim Morris
Jim Schlentz is usually pretty good at calculating how a race or meet is going to unfold. The Colts Neck High School indoor track and field coach figured his Cougars would lose the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III championship by about 24 points. But, while expecting the worst, he also planned for the best.
“I put people in place just in case some things didn’t work out for the other teams,” he said.
As it turned out, things didn’t work out for the other teams Feb. 8 at the John Bennett Indoor Athletic Complex in Toms River, and the Cougars were there to take full advantage.
“With two events left, we figured we had a shot,” Schlentz said.
Trailing by 16 points with the 3,200-meter and 4×400 relay races remaining, Colts Neck put its distance running prowess (Central Jersey Group III cross-country champions) to full use. The Cougars went first through third in the 3,200, scoring a hefty 24 points, which was enough to overtake Jackson Memorial High School to win the team competition by three points, 52-49, and defend their 2015 title.
Jordan Brannan led the way for Colts Neck, winning both the 1,600 (4:20.62) and the 3,200 (9:31.65).
It was the 3,200 that stood out because the Cougars were able to get the sweep they most desperately needed. Brannan pointed out that the trio of Cougars — himself, Anthony Russo and Kevin Berry — had a game plan to get the sweep.
The Cougars expected West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South’s Tim Bason to set the pace out front, which he did.
“I was to follow the leaders and if it was an honest pace, move at 1,200 [meters remaining],” Brannan said. “Anthony was to cover my move.”
Bason set an honest pace and when Brannan took off with 1,200 to go, a gap quickly opened up.
“Everyone else slowed down,” the Cougar said.
While everyone else was slowing down, Russo followed Brannan as planned.
At 800 meters, Brannan took off again, breaking the opposition further with Russo firmly in second.
Meanwhile, Berry took advantage of the wreckage caused by Brannan and moved up to third place.
After crossing the finish line, Brannan took a look back to teammates Russo (9:35.78) and Berry (9:40.84) and thought, “Oh my God, we did it.”
It was the 24 points the Cougars needed.
Brannan never doubted that the Cougars could pull off the sweep. He knows how fit his teammate are.
“I train with them every day,” he said.
It was a grand night for Brannan, who, after a series of second-place finishes, finally got the championship he was looking for.
In the 1,600, Brannan had a game plan as well.
“I was going to run a huge third — make it my fastest quarter,” he said. “I was going to take [opponents] out of their comfort level.”
It was a strategy he’s tried this winter, only this time he finally did it to perfection, he said.
Teammate Zach Csipkay gave the team important points in fourth place (4:25.90).
To finally get that first major win was important to Brannan, but it took a back seat to the team championship.
“I love winning [individually], but doing it with a team is better,” he said.
Colts Neck had other heroes besides its distance runners. Thanks to the field events, the Cougars were able to stay close enough to strike at the end. In the high jump, Ryan Tomkins (6-2) tied for second and Patrick Bohen finished fourth (5-8).
Troy Bass took fifth in the shot put (41-11¼).
Those results left the Cougars with 27 points while the Jaguars were in the lead with 43 with two events remaining. A big race from the Colts Neck distance runners would give them a chance. They got what they needed when their cross-country runners dominated, getting the sweep they needed to take a 51-43 lead.
Jackson Memorial, however , was the favorite to win the 4×400, which would have allowed them to overtake Colts Neck. But the Jaguars, despite running a season-best 3:33.21, could only manage third place and six points, which was not enough to overtake the Cougars, who took sixth in the relay. Colts Neck’s relay team of Robert Schandall, Alexander Austin, Nick Nager and Dean Raynor clocked 3:39.49 in sixth place.
The top six finishers in each event move on to the Group III Championships Feb. 20 at the Bennett complex.
Leading the qualifiers for the Colts Neck girls was the 4×400 relay team of Stephanie O’Horo, Sarah Elice, Julia Saffaye and Raeann Giannattasio that was second (4:18.59).
Individually, Giannattasio was fourth in the 1,600 (5:28.70) and O’Horo was third in the 800 (2:23.19).
Freehold High School’s Chisom Chinedu qualified in two events. She was sixth in the 55 hurdles (9.28) and high jump (4-8).