By JOHN HAPP
Special to the Sun
The Cherry Hill East boys cross country team faces probably one of its biggest challenges ever.
The challenge of what to do for an encore after their 2014 season in which they were the South Jersey Group IV sectional champions for the second consecutive year; won their first ever State Group IV championship and then capped that off by finishing third in the entire state in the Meet of Champions.
In a typical varsity race a team can field up to seven runners. However last year, Cherry Hill East put eight runners on the all-Olympic Conference team. Earning first-team honors were Aaron Groff, Dan Helfand, Christian Mele and Josh Dillon, and earning second-team honors were Cole Parsons, Isaiah Jean-Baptiste, Jeff Braun and Mark Meltzer. This was the third consecutive year for Helfand and Groff, and the second consecutive year for Braun and Mele. Lost to graduation in the spring were a trio of talented runners that are all continuing their running careers in college: Helfand for the United States Naval Academy, Braun at Johns Hopkins University and Mele at Alvernia University.
This year’s team is led by senior captains Groff, Jean-Baptiste, Parsons, Ryan Federline, Sean Finias, and Vimalesh Vasu. The challenge for Matt Cieslik, now in his 15th year as Cherry Hill East’s boys cross country head coach, is who to run at each meet. In cross country meets, a team can field up to seven varsity runners with the top five finishers on each team awarded placement points used to calculate the team’s overall performance. This year’s team includes five runners that all ran last year in either the South Jersey sectionals, State finals or the Meet of Champions in addition to other runners on the team competing for varsity slots. The team returns runners who all finished in the top 33 in last year’s South Jersey Group IV sectionals including Groff Jean-Baptiste, Parsons, Dillon and Marc Meltzer. Groff also finished second in the State Group IV championship, and finished seventh in the entire state at the Meet Of Champions, which was the highest finish for any non-senior. Although Cherry Hill East lost three starters to graduation, the team is deep in talent and carries over 40 runners. Looking to compete this year for varsity time are Federline and juniors Michael Onu and Noah Preihs.
The team goals for the upcoming season are to defend all of their 2014 titles. Besides the South Jersey and State Group IV championships, the Cougars are also the two-time defending Olympic Conference Champions and hopes to be the first three-peat since Cherokee from 2007 to 2009. East will face a strong challenge from Cherokee as last year they finished third in South Jersey and eighth in the state Group IV Championship, and only graduated one senior from that team.