HomeCherry Hill NewsAaron Groff etches his name in Cherry Hill East cross-country history

Aaron Groff etches his name in Cherry Hill East cross-country history

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Entering the South Jersey Group IV sectional meet on Nov. 7, a Cherry Hill High School East male cross country runner hadn’t won an individual South Jersey sectional title since Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” was the top song on the Billboard Hot 100 and “A Christmas Story” premiered in theaters.

Cherry Hill East senior Aaron Groff was determined to finally end the school’s drought.

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Groff became the first Cherry Hill East boys’ cross-country runner in 32 years to win an individual South Jersey sectional, dashing past the competition in the second half of the race to win the South Jersey Group IV championship. The last Cherry Hill East male to win an individual South Jersey championship was Bill Stewart in 1983.

Groff’s title came a year after falling just short in 2014, when he lost to Noah Culbreath of Kingsway by less than a second. To finally win the championship in his senior season was a great feeling.

“I knew it had been awhile,” Groff said. “It was definitely nice to see. I knew there were runners who had run in the 80s before.”

Groff first ran cross-country in sixth grade, but began to take the sport seriously in eighth grade. When he joined the Cherry Hill East team as a freshman in 2012, he jumped onto the scene as one of the best runners in his age group in South Jersey. In his first sectional meet, he was the fastest freshman in the field, finishing in 32nd place.

Groff said running long distances came naturally to him.

“It’s always been my strength,” he said. “When I used to swim, I always used to go for the longer events, which most people would not do. I liked to go longer and stronger. It’s that same mentality that helped me with distance running.”

In 2013, Groff went from a top freshman runner to one of the fastest runners across all grade levels. He credits this success to former teammate Ben Dillon, a 2014 Cherry Hill East graduate, who was the Cougars’ top runner at the time. Groff trained with him throughout the summer of 2013.

“He was going into the summer a lot farther ahead of me,” Groff said. “I bridged that gap because I basically ran with him every day during the week in the summer.”

Gradually, Groff improved as the season went on. In the 2013 South Jersey Group IV race, Groff shaved off nearly a full minute from his time the previous year and finished in third place, behind only Culbreath and Dillon. At the state meet the next week, Groff was the top finishing South Jersey runner. He came in sixth place.

“Early on, we were going shoulder to shoulder in a lot of races, and then I began to take off,” Groff said.

Groff entered this year with a lot of fast times and top-five finishes. However, he still was looking for an individual sectional and state championship. To prepare for the season, Groff developed a season-long game plan with Cherry Hill East head coach Matt Cieslik, which centered on setting a pace Groff could keep for a longer time than the competition.

“Our theory was if people could run a pace for a certain length of time, the way to do it for me was to hold it for a longer stretch,” Groff said.

Cieslik said he worked with Groff on this through most of the regular season.

“We were going to gear his training and racing to hopefully have him run his best races now,” Cieslik said. “In some of the races early in the season, there’s a bigger picture for someone like him than just winning the race.”

The game plan worked on Nov. 7. Groff kept to his pace early in the race rather than sprinting out to the front of the pack. As the race wore on, Groff continued to push steady through the course and pass the other top runners. As Groff closed in on the finish line, no one had a chance to catch him.

Not only did Groff won South Jersey Group IV by more than 11 seconds, he had also beaten all of the male runners in the other groups as well.

Even with the game plan, Cieslik thinks Groff’s determination was the biggest factor in his win.

“What I think is his greatest strength is that he is very determined,” Cieslik said. “That shows itself on race day but it also shows itself on July 15 and July 19 and Aug. 22. He has the ability to push distractions aside.”

Earlier this fall, Groff committed to the University of Pennsylvania and will run for the Quakers in college. Before he wraps up his high school cross country career, however, Groff wants to become the fastest cross country runner in New Jersey for 2015 at the Meet of Champions on Nov. 21.

“I’ve grown in confidence a lot,” Groff said. “It’s more than just being strong. You need some luck, especially in a meet as competitive as the Meet of Champions. But I’m more confident than I’ve ever been.”

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