Zawatski wins cross country Meet of Champions title; qualifies for national meet

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Every morning when Freehold Township High School distance runner Emma Zawatski wakes up, the first thing she sees is a cork board on which a list of all the goals she wants to achieve each season is posted.

For her junior cross country campaign in 2022, Zawatski had two big goals: to win the NJSIAA Meet of Champions race and to qualify to compete on the national stage at the Champs Sports Cross Country Championships. She has accomplished both goals and stamped her name in the school’s record book.

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Zawatski became the first Freehold Township athlete to win the cross country Meet of Champions and the school’s first cross country runner to qualify for the national meet.

“It was such a great season for me and my teammates,” Zawatski said in an interview this week. “I am very goal-oriented. Every time I reach a goal, a new one is created. I am very excited for the next two track seasons.”

During the 2022 spring track season, Zawatski captured her first Meet of Champions state title as she won the 1,600-meter race in a personal best time of 4:48.88.

During the 2022 cross country season, Zawatski secured her second Meet of Champions state title as she won the 5-kilometer (3.1 miles) race in 18:38 at Holmdel Park on Nov. 12.

The Meet of Champions brings together the top athletes from around New Jersey from high schools of all sizes to compete against each other. The sectional and group meets that precede the Meet of Champions separate athletes by region and the size of schools.

Zawatski said she surprised herself by winning the Meet of Champions 1,600 earlier this year. She said that victory showed her anything is possible and gave her a lot of confidence heading into the cross country season.

“You never get to settle in running. Once you get one goal, there is another one to accomplish. You can accomplish so many great things,” Zawatski said.

In 2021, Emma’s brother, Tyler, won the Meet of Champions javelin championship for Freehold Township. Tyler is a freshman javelin thrower at the University of Virginia.

Their brother, Zach, is a junior distance runner at Baylor University. In 2020, Zach won the 3,200-meter race at the Shore Conference Indoor Championships for Freehold Township.

“It’s really cool to be a part of a family that is expanding our legacy” at Freehold Township, Emma said.

On Nov. 26, Zawatski competed in the Champs Sports Cross Country Northeast Regional race at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, N.Y., and became the first Freehold Township cross country runner to qualify for the national meet.

Zawatski finished 10th in the Bronx and will compete in the national meet on Dec. 10 at Balboa Park in San Diego, Calif. The top 10 runners from each of four regions advanced to the nationals.

“This has been a dream of mine since I was in fifth grade,” Zawatski said of competing at the nationals. “I am looking forward to the whole experience of the race.”

During the 2022 cross country season, Zawatski took home a silver medal at the Monmouth County Championships, and then earned the top-prize of winning a gold medal at the Shore Conference Championships, the Central Jersey Group IV state sectional meet and the Group IV state championship meet.

Zawatski’s success this season was no surprise to Freehold Township Coach Todd Briggs, who is also her training partner. Briggs said he knew after training with Zawatski all summer that she was destined to have a great fall season.

“It almost went like I thought it would from watching it. It is amazing our program (Freehold Township) can produce a Meet of Championship winner,” he said.

Zawatski credited much of her success this season to training with Briggs and to his tutelage in helping her to become a better and smarter runner.

“I came into this season stronger than I have ever had before,” she said.

Zawatski’s success had a major impact on the rest of the cross country team, Briggs said.

Not only did Zawatski help lead the Patriots to multiple championships during the fall, she also inspired many of her teammates to reach new heights and to become better runners, according to Briggs.

“If there is anyone who had the most impact on their teammates, it’s Emma,” Briggs said. “She lives and dies by the sport and that rubbed off on the other girls.”

Freehold Township made history as the first boys or girls team in school history to win a state title at the Group IV cross country championship meet on Nov. 5 in Holmdel. The Patriots scored a course time of 20:14 as a team to win the crown.

Prior to winning the Group IV state crown, the Patriots won the program’s first state sectional title at the Central Jersey Group IV competition on Oct. 29 at Thompson Park in Jamesburg.

Ava Biemuller, Heather Feinstein, Leah Rutledge, Sophia Briggs, Caroline Cox and Leah Bloom all ran alongside Zawatski during the state sectional and state championship meets. The runners helped Freehold Township end an outstanding 2022 campaign with a third place finish at the Meet of Champions.

The Patriots also won the team titles at the Monmouth County Championships and at the Shore Conference Championships.

“We had so much fun (this season). We had a deep roster of talent and they pushed each other to be the best every day. It made us a tight-knit group. The culture of the Freehold Township girls cross country program grew exponentially,” Briggs said.

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