By JOHN HAPP
Special to the Sun
The winter track season will wrap up this weekend with the New Jersey Meet of Champions held at the John Bennett Indoor Sports Complex in Toms River. On consecutive weeks, this indoor bubble hosts the sectionals, state finals and the Meet of Champions. While a traditional outdoor track is 400 meters in length, this indoor track is half the distance and thus presents some strategic challenges for the runners. The Cherry Hill High School East winter track team is led by Head Coach Matt Cieslik, now in his 15th season, and coaches Michael Surrency, who coaches sprinters, and Jeff Bramnick, who coaches the throwers.
In addition this year the East students competed in the Metropolitan Invitational at the famed New York Armory. The New York Armory with its banked curves is one of the fastest tracks in the world and is also home of the US Track and Field Hall of Fame.
East had a number of competitors place in events. Freshman Kyle Krell finished fifth in two freshman events — the 800-meters and 1600-meters. In the varsity events the Cougars finished one-two in the 1600 meters with seniors Aaron Groff first and Isaiah Jean-Baptiste second. Senior Jordan Clark won the 55-meter hurdles. In the long jump, senior Kennedy Omari finished sixth and Jean-Baptiste also finished third in the 800-meter run.
To qualify for the state Group IV finals an athlete must finish in the top six finishers in his or her event in the South Jersey Group IV Sectionals. At the sectionals, seven athletes and the 4×400-meter relay team placed high enough to qualify for the state finals. The seven athletes are the most since 2007 when East also had an amazing twelve individual athletes qualify for the state group finals. East’s 4×400-merer relay team qualified for the state finals for the seventh consecutive year and this year featured four seniors: Kyle Encarncion, Isaiah Jean-Baptiste, Kennedy Omari and Jordan Clark.
The seven individuals that qualified for the state finals include six seniors and one junior. In the 1600-meter run, seniors Jean-Baptiste finished fourth and Cole Parsons sixth. This was Parson’s first time qualifying for the finals in indoor track and his time of 4:28.22 in the state finals is the fastest indoor time, beating by 1.5 seconds the time Dan Helfand set as a sophomore in 2013. Clark also qualified for the state finals in the 55-meter hurdles. Clark finished third in South Jersey and seventh in the state finals. Clark’s 7.94 seconds in the state finals is the fastest at Cherry Hill East, beating the 2013 time of Jared Athias by 0.01 seconds. Jean-Baptiste became the first Cougar runner to qualify for more than one individual event since Athias in 2013 when he finished third in the 800-meter run.
In the state finals of the 800-meter, Jean-Baptiste ‘s time of 1:59.03 beat his own school record set last year. Jean-Baptiste qualified for the Meet of Champions 800-meter for the second straight year. Senior Nevin Beasley also qualified for both the state finals and Meet of Champions in the high jump for the second consecutive year. Beasley finished fourth in South Jersey and then fifth in the finals. Encarncion also qualified in the high jump for the state finals when he finished fifth in sectionals. This was his first indoor track state final.
Finally, in the 3200-meter run, Cherry Hill East also had two athletes qualify for the state finals. The lone junior Marc Meltzer placed sixth. For the second consecutive year Groff was the South Jersey Group IV sectional champion. Groff’s time of 9:24.54 was an eight second improvement over his 2015 winning time. In the state finals Groff improved again by eight seconds running 9:16.09 and finished second in the state. This is the third consecutive year that Groff has qualified for the Meet of Champions and joins Andrew Athias (2009–2011) and Alex Reber (2010–2012) as East’s only three-time Meet of Champions participants.
“The shot-putters worked very hard this winter, and made impressive progress with both their technique and understanding of the event,” said assistant coach Jeffrey Bramnick. “They’re building a great foundation for the future.”
The boys are led by a trio of juniors all of which set personal records this season and all throwing over 40 feet in competition. Devin Brown had the best throw of the season with a toss of 42 feet, 6 inches. He consistently had throws over 40 feet. Gilad Bar had the best performance at the South Jersey Group IV sectionals with a throw of 40 feet, 3 inches. Jake Ciocco also broke 40 feet at the South Jersey Throw Down held at Cherokee High School.
On the girls’ side, Nandini Kuntamukkula, a sophomore, had the best throw at 23 feet 7 inches. Sophomore Chahat Sethi, improved throughout the season, and broke 20 feet and Freshman Sachi Desai, in her first campaign as a track and field athlete, also threw over 20 feet.
The East girls did not place any athlete in the state finals. However they had a number of strong performances from underclassmen. In the pole vault, sophomore Alana Cohen cleared eight feet and finished seventh. It is the best finish and height for Cherry Hill East in the last ten years. Freshman Dani Lazarus finished 12th in the 1600-meter run when she improved her personal record by ten seconds, running it in 5:41.17. She was the second highest freshman runner in Group IV. It was also the fastest time by a Cherry Hill East runner in the 1600-meter since 2012 when then sophomore Maddie Berman ran a 5:22.42. Sophomore Danielle Allen finished 13th in the 400-meter run with a time of 1:02.62.