The State Group Championships are contested every fall on the second weekend in November. However championships are won during the summer when the runners and teams put in countless hours and miles to prepare for that one day. That is certainly true for this year’s Cherry Hill East Boys Cross Country team, which won its first State Group IV Championship. To win a state championship really takes a complete team effort and the East runners worked very hard all summer as a team so that they each would be at their best when it mattered most.
East was led by junior Aaron Groff with a time of 15:55 and a second place finish, which is the best time and place by an East runner since at least 2004. He is the first East runner to break the 16-minute mark on the iconic Holmdel course that is both very hilly and challenging and features a section of the course known simply as “the bowl.” Groff was closely followed by two seniors, Dan Helfand finished 10th in a time of 16:18 and Christian Mele 14th in a time of 16:27. Helfand took 37 seconds off his time from last year and Mele had a more impressive 42-second improvement. Also pointing for East were sophomore Josh Dillion and junior Isaiah Jean-Baptiste. The times of East’s top five runners all put them in the top 10 all-time at East for all grades in a state final. Completing East’s first state championship team were sophomore Marc Meltzer and junior Cole Parsons.
East’s average time of 16:26 was the fastest by any Group IV school in the state finals since 2003 when Mainland was one second faster at 16:25. The team’s score of 73 was the third best in the last twelve years beaten only by West Windsor Plainsboro South’s score of 64 in 2012 and Mainland’s 54 in 2003.
How deep is the talent on this year’s team? In a typical varsity race a team can field up to seven runners. This year East put an amazing eight runners on the all-Olympic Conference team. Earning first team honors were Helfand, Mele, Groff and Dillon and earning second team honors were senior Jeff Braun, Jean-Baptiste, Parsons and Meltzer. This was the second consecutive year for Helfand, Mele and Groff.
South Jersey schools had a very good day winning three of the four group finals. Besides East’s Group IV win, Haddon Township won Group I and Haddonfield won Group II. In addition Kingsway, which finished second to East in the South Jersey Group Sectional, again finished second and also earned a place in the Meet of Champions. This is the first time two schools from South Jersey finished this high in the group since 2009 when Toms River North finished third and Southern finished fifth.
The Meet of Champions features the top three teams from the six groups, plus two extra wildcard teams. East showed why they earned a preseason national ranking by finishing third, which is the best finish by any South Jersey school since Haddonfield finished second in 2010. The MOC was won for the fifth consecutive year, and 20th overall title, by the Christian Brothers Academy. Groff once again led the team finishing seventh and was the highest non-senior finisher. The race featured 174 of the best runners in the state. Helfand, Dillon and Mele all finished in the top 50 of this elite group. Also featured for East were Meltzer, Jean-Baptiste and Braun. Dillon and Metzer were also in the top eight sophomore finishers. The other South Jersey teams in the MOC were Haddonfield (5th) and Haddon Township (10th). For the third consecutive Saturday, Kingsway Regional finished one place behind Cherry Hill East.
Prior to the season the team set three goals: to repeat as South Jersey Champions, win a State Championship and improve on its 2013 ninth place finish in the Meet of Champions. All three are contested on Saturdays in November however this team has shown that it takes the sweat equity of summer workouts as a team to achieve its goals. Now that the season is over all that is left is to sit back and enjoy the best cross country season ever by an East team.