By Bob Nuse, Sports Editor
Nick Birnie went to the state Group IV track and field championships hoping to perform well enough to earn a spot in the Meet of Champions.
The Princeton High senior wound up doing that and more last weekend. Not only did Birnie qualify for a spot in the Meet of Champions, he did so by winning the pole vault at the Group IV meet.
“It was pretty incredible,” said Birnie, one of several Packet-area athletes to earn a spot in the MOC. “I didn’t expect to win going into the meet. I managed to get through, which is pretty cool. The Meet of Champs will have all the kids from all over the state. My goal was to just move on.”
Birnie jumped 13-feet to and claimed first place overall in a sudden death ‘vault off’ against Raymond Diorio of Watchung Hills.
“The expectation wasn’t that he could win,” Princeton associate head coach Ben Samara said. “A couple of the guys had jumped 13-6. He jumped his best and a couple kids faltered and he capitalized on it. He is a gamer and rose to the moment. He showed his mettle in the jump off.”
Birnie wasn’t the only area athlete to win a state title. West Windsor-Plainsboro North’s John Owens won the long jump at the Group III meet with a leap of 23-feet, 8-inches, while Hannah Taylor of Montgomery won the long jump in 19-feet, 3¾-inches at the Group IV meet.
The Princeton boys had a big day in addition to the win by Birnie. Alex Roth was third in the 3,200 meters, while Paul Brennan finished fifth in the discus. Will Hare finished seventh in the 3,200 meters and Theodore Tel was seventh in the long jump, earning a wild card to the MOC. The Little Tigers were fourth in the 4×800 relay on their way to an eighth place finish as team.
For the WW-P North boys in Group III, Kacper Rzempoluch finished fourth in the pole vault, Matthew Santamaria was sixth in the 3,200 meters and Myles Fye-Moore finished eighth in the 100-meter dash. The 4×100 relay team finished fifth
Back in the Group IV meet, WW-P South’s Tim Bason finished second in the 1,600 meters and A’Nan Bridgett tied for fifth in the high jump. Montgomery’s Deandre Thomas was seventh in the triple jump.
On the girls side, Princeton’s highlight was a great effort from its 4×400 relays, which finished second in Group IV and set a school record along the way. Jordan Vine, Caren Ju, Maia Hauschild and Jackie Patterson finished in 3:55.70. Patterson also finished sixth in the 400 meters.
“The girls smashed by three seconds the school record that they had just recently set,” Samara said. “Every girl was at or below their personal best. They put together the race of their lives at the right moment. Now they are in the top heat with a great chance to medal at the MOC.
“The whole team had been sick leading up to sectionals. They all got healthy and were right where we thought we would be. They are peaking at the right time.”
WW-P South was seventh as a team in Group IV. Christina Rancan was second in the 1,600 meters, while Kathryn Schoenauer finished fourth in the 100 hurdles and long jump, as well as fifth in the 400 hurdles. Alyssen Rivers was fifth in the javelin, Edwina Gulama was sixth in the 200 meters, and Bernadette Cao was eighth in the triple jump. The Pirates were also fourth in the 4×400 relay and sixth in the 4×800 relay.
In addition to her long jump win, Montgomery’s Taylor was eighth in the high jump, while Queen Devine fourth in the 400 hurdles and eighth in the 100 hurdles.
For Princeton’s Birnie, the chance to compete at the MOC after winning a Group IV state title was something he never would have thought was possible when he took up the event just a year ago.
“Last year I didn’t even know what the Meet of Champions was,” said Birnie, who will attend Rutgers University beginning in September. “I used to row crew my freshman and sophomore years but I herniated a disc in my back and had to stop rowing. I decided to try out for the track team and the only event I really was interested in was the pole vault. It’s a pretty rare event and not a lot of people do it. It looked like fun.”
Birnie made quite a bit of progress over the course of the year and now is one of the top pole vaulters in the state.
“It is great for him,” Samara said. “He is a kid who came in has slowly built himself into an elite athlete and a real leader. He and coach (Joe) Gargione have been working on some things. He had no-heighted indoors when we were in a tight race and he struggled for a little while after that. I am proud of the way he has bounced back from that. He has shown a lot of toughness.”
Added Birnie: “I pretty much just started last year. Last year my personal record was 10-6 and over the winter I managed to get my PR up more than foot and a half. I started to focus on the sport and told myself I wanted to get better and not just do it to stay fit. I have had great coaching. It’s not just me. I could not have done it without my coaches.”
Birnie’s win was the highlight of a strong meet for the Princeton boys.
“Alex Roth ran a smart, tactical race like he always does,” Samara said. “He has become really reliable in these big spots. Paul now sits as the No. 6 freshman discus thrower in the country. He keeps improving and stepping up in big spots. He had a 163-3, which is a PR. He carries himself like someone who has been around the block. He comes from that pedigree and has been around this and it shows. He is not your typical freshman.”
By Bob Nuse, Sports Editor