By Bob Nuse, Sports Editor
Ben Samara remembers the day he first realized Jackie Patterson could some special things on the track.
“She showed up as a freshman and in our first meet she did the 55-(meter) dash,” the Princeton High associate head coach said. “I remember I was at the high jump pit at the time. The gun went off and when I looked over everyone was halfway down the track and she was at the finish line.
“I knew from that day on we had something pretty special. She showed a propensity for endurance and we felt she was someone who could train to do the 400 and 800. Coach (Jim) Smirk started working on that with her and she has developed into a top runner. She has great speed and kick and she shows that in both races.”
Patterson and the rest of the Little Tigers will head to the Central Jersey Group IV meet at Hillsborough this weekend. The meet begins Friday and will conclude on Saturday. This will be Princeton’s first year running against Group IV competition in the sectionals, but Patterson and her teammates feel prepared.
“I am excited,” the Little Tiger sophomore said. “It should be good.”
Patterson is coming off a couple of strong performances as she head into the sectional meet. She won the 400 meters at the Mercer County meet two weeks ago and then followed that performance with a win in the 800 meters at the Mercer County Freshman-Sophomore meet last weekend.
“ It was a surprise,” Patterson said of winning the sophomore 800, which she did with a time of 2:20.53. “I had been struggling with the third 200 and would just die there. I think I had good competition in that meet and that pushed me to have a good race.
“For the most part, I feel like I have a pretty strong kick. When I started running the 400 I thought it was so long. Running the 800 really gives me a good perspective. I didn’t run it last year so it is new for me. I started running it this year in some of the smaller meets and I have focused on the 400 in the bigger meets.”
At the Mercer County meet, Patterson won the 400 in 57.37 seconds and was also part of the Little Tigers’ winning 4×400 relay along with Mia Hauschild, Jordan Vine and Amy Watsky.
“We just threw her into the 800 at the freshman-sophomore meet and she goes 2:20 and wins the race and now the fifth seed in the 800 in the toughest section in state for sectionals,” Samara said. “She has done amazing. She went sub 60 in the 400 as freshman. We talk to her about it all the time that her biggest thing is confidence. As long as she believes it she can do it.
“She has been doing it throughout the season, Once she realizes how good she is and gets the confidence she will run some mind-blowing times.”
While Samara and the rest of the coaching staff wait for Patterson to gain that confidence, they have already seen enough to know she is an elite runner.
“There are two things that happened within a month,” Samara said. “One thing is she splits 58-low without a shoe or sock in sub freezing weather at Penn Relays. Her shoe fell off and she got stepped on and still ran a great time. And then she had that great kick to go from fourth to first in the 400 at the county meet.
“I said to her that if after doing those two things you have to believe you can do anything. That has to help confidence. She is finally starting to believe in her abilities.”
Patterson will run the 400 at the sectional meet and depending on how she comes out of that event will also run the 800 at the meet. She also has the 4×400, which she and her teammates feel good about.
“I am very excited for the 4×4,” Patterson said. “We have four great runners and fifth that subs in who is also great.”
Patterson is has developed into one of those runners through hard work, making a lot of progress in just two years.
“I started out just going into high school as only a sprinter and not knowing much about track,” Patterson said. “I felt like I built up to it. This past fall I did cross country and that gave me more confidence in myself. That was when I grew into the 800. I felt like if I could run a 5k in an okay time I could do the 800. I like the 400. It’s like a sprint but you can control it and there is strategy involved.
“I think I have made a lot of physical improvement through hard training and also a lot of mental improvement knowing how to run the races. I used to be terrified of the 400 and now I am not nervous going into the races. We have such a great group of coaches and runners and that pushes me a lot.”
Patterson and the rest of the Princeton runners will face a different challenge in CJ IV, but they feel prepared.
“I think it will be a little different going to Group 4 after being Group 3,” Samara said. “Everyone says it is the toughest section with teams that would dominate in Group 3. I think it will help us raise our game. We have been gearing up for it and we are ready.”
By Bob Nuse, Sports Editor