By Bob Nuse, Sports Editor
The Princeton High School boys’ cross-country team was able to fly under the radar for much of last season.
For as talented as the Little Tigers were a year ago, they still seemed to catch opponents by surprise as they stockpiled championship after championship throughout the season.
First it was the Mercer County championship, followed by first-place finishes in the Central Jersey Group 4 state meet, the Group 4 state meet, and eventually, the state title at the Meet of Champions.
After proving itself as the best team in New Jersey at every stop along the way last year, Princeton brings back a strong contingent this autumn as it looks find its way to finish on the top again.
“I think we are realistic about the idea that we can’t line up and be unknown,” Princeton coach Jim Smirk said. “Last year we went to a lot of meets, starting with the Manhattan Invitational and continuing into the post season, where we were a little bit under the radar. That’s not the case this year. I don’t think our approach has changed. It’s just a different situation.”
Princeton returns four seniors from the group who formed the core of last year’s team. The quartet of Will Hare, Nicholas Delaney, Alex Ackerman and Jackson Donahue will help set the pace again this year.
“They have been getting together over the summer and now we’re back for preseason and getting in the work and creating a team identity,” said Smirk, who graduated seniors Alex Roth and Cy Watsky from last year’s championship squad. “We have had a lot of good practices.
“I think we are also starting to see our group of athletes who were on the bubble for the varsity last year and they really looking at what do those guys on varsity do to move up to that upper level. They have taken that to heart. You can see the on the bubble runners doing the work that you usually see from the top two or three guys. You can see a shift in the approach they take.”
Throughout last season, even when opponents would underestimate the Little Tigers, the team itself was always confident in its abilities. As the reigning Meet of Champions winner, Princeton will have a target on its back this year. Has that forced the team to work even harder?
“I think the bigger thing is not that they are working harder, but we want them to work consistently,” Smirk said. “We were able to see that as a good change. We have seen over the years that athletes can get better a little bit at a time. Some kids figure it out faster and jump up and make a name for themselves. We have some of those guys. And there some that it just takes time to figure it out.”
Princeton is now established as a consistent elite program and Smirk would love to see that continue.
“We have had a constantly growing middle school program and we have seen that pay dividends at the high school level,” Smirk said. “We have a pretty good-sized freshman class. It’s pretty much the same as last year. But I think they come in with a better sense of what it takes to be a competitor.
“We have had athletes come out in the past who couldn’t run a mile and it took all four years to develop. But you see now that we are a little bit ahead of the curve because of that cultural development in our community with the athletes.”
By Bob Nuse, Sports Editor