Longstanding meet kicking off cross country season includes thousands of runners from across region
For more than two decades, cross country runners have converged on Cherokee High School in early September to kick off the sport’s major meet season at Cherokee Challenge. This year, despite rain through the week, a picturesque day greeted thousands of high school and middle school runners on Saturday, Sept. 8, and while no records were broken, strong times were clocked and plenty of fun was had.
“The word is out,” Steve Shaklee, Cherokee High School boys cross country head coach, said. “This is a great meet to start the year and get your kids excited about the sport.”
In fact, organizers now have to turn teams away because Cherokee Challenge has become so popular. Nearly 3,000 runners from 120 schools competed in this year’s challenge, topping last year’s tally by approximately 330. In comparison, when Cherokee Challenge first started, less than 500 runners took part.
Shaklee, who has been coaching since 1980 and leading Cherokee’s boys cross country since 1992, conceived of Cherokee Challenge 23 years ago, with the event starting a year later. Cherokee assistant principal Chris Callinan is the meet director, and science teacher Jeffrey Thompson is the site director.
“The meet was a huge success this year. The weather was nearly perfect, and despite lots of rain leading up to the race, the grounds department at Cherokee did an absolutely phenomenal job of keeping the course safe and dry,” Thompson said.
The course — two miles for high school athletes and one-and-a-half miles for middle school athletes — is challenging with varied terrain, according to race organizers. Runners take the first half mile around the grass fields, then head down Bill’s Lane through a wooded area. From here they hit the steep Challenge Hill, run on the fields, take a route around the stadium, up the stadium hill and around the baseball field to the finish line.
There are winners in each age bracket at Cherokee Challenge, and one Cherokee runner came out on top in his race. Chris Spisak took first place for sophomore boys in 9:58.61. Cherokee’s Justin Kelly came in second in the senior race with a time of 9:48.22. For Cherokee girls, Kate Rathman placed third for sophomore girls in 11:54.78. Sophia Eich took 10th in senior girls with a time of 12:16.47.
“Athletes seemed to really enjoy the morning, and there were lots of fast times,” Thompson said.
The day boasts an exciting, lively atmosphere, with live DJ/announcer Chip Candy, medals for the top 30 finishers in each race, trophies for top winners, and — for all participants this year — orange and black Cherokee Challenge sunglasses.
Thompson and Shaklee were both quick to credit Callinan with Cherokee Challenge’s growth and success.
“Honestly, he’s phenomenal,” Thompson said. “He finds a way to improve the meet and its atmosphere every year. These little things have resulted in a huge meet that teams from the entire tri-state area come to. My sense is that this is one of the meets teams most look forward to coming to each season.”
Shaklee echoed these sentiments.
“(Callinan) is the one that keeps coming up with things to improve the meet. Our coaching staff also works very hard at it; this includes the girls coaches, Mark Jarvis and Dave Petruzzi, who put a lot of time and effort into helping to make it run as well as it does. It’s definitely a team effort, led by Cal,” Shaklee said.
Shaklee, Callinan and Thompson also noted their thanks for the support from Chrokee Athletic Director Scott Agnew, principals Donna Charlesworth and Len Iannelli, and trainers Jeff Wood and Karen Hengst.
After the resounding success of this year’s Cherokee Challenge, organizers are already looking to next year’s event.
“The event has never been better. Cross country athletes are enthusiastic and also a close-knit community. This leads to many of them cheering for each other as well as their teammates,” Shaklee said. “We also get unbeatable support from our cross country booster club. They are out in droves before, during and after the meet to ensure a successful event.”
2017 TOP FINISHERS
- Middle School Girls: Rachel Short, Southern Regional Middle School, 8:54.54
- Middle School Boys: Matthew Filliben, St. Mary Magdalen, 7:51.96
- Freshman Girls: Kate Inglis, Moorestown High School, 12:03.70
- Freshman Boys: Edwin Klanke, St. Peter’s Prep, 10:14.23
- Sophomore Girls: Victoria Vanriele, Governor Livingston High School, 11:39.20
- Sophomore Boys: Chris Spisak, Cherokee High School, 9:58.61
- Junior Girls: Keelin Hays, Tatnall, 11:09.40
- Junior Boys: Michael Keehan, Salesianum School, 9:47.33
- Senior Girls: Dominique Schultz, Conestoga, 11:26.74
- Senior Boys: Chris Romero, Voorhees High School, 9:32.93