Two first-place finishes spark Burlington Township track and field at sectionals

The Falcons got first place finishes from senior Daniel Mends in the boys 55-meter hurdles and from the girls 4x400m relay team.

By MIKE MONOSTRA, The Sun

Burlington Township High School’s track and field team had a flair for the dramatic at the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III sectional meet on Feb. 4.

The Falcons had two first-place finishes at the sectional meet, with senior Daniel Mends winning the boys 55-meter hurdles by just five-hundredths of a second, and the girls 4x400m relay team winning its event by a little more than four-tenths of a second.

The first-place finish for the girls relay team came as a surprise, as the Falcons defeated strong relay teams from Pennsauken High School and Winslow Township High School. Prior to sectionals, the 4x400m relay team had not finished first place in a meet this season.

“We expected to go to states,” senior Courtney James said. “We’ve had our eye on states for a long time. But to get first place was really a surprise.”

The relay team got a boost from freshman Alyssa Leak, who joined James, senior Rachael Mends and junior Chase Thomas for the sectional meet. The three upperclassmen had been together on the relay team for most of season, but Leak was a new addition to the group.

“It really didn’t take that long,” Thomas said about Leak joining the group. “She fit right in. She’s a hard worker just like all of us.”

The Falcons hung in the top-four for most of the sectional race. Winslow fell out of the race for first place after a dropped baton, leaving Burlington Township to battle Pennsauken and Toms River South for the win.

Running the final leg, Thomas said her teammates motivated her to push to the finish line.

“They really gave me motivation,” she said. “I love running the 4-by-4 and I wanted to do it for my team.”

The Falcons’ win was a highlight for the four girls, especially after Leak, Mends and Thomas fell short of qualifying for states in their individual events.

“As soon as she came across the line, I remember (Thomas) just bursting out in tears,” Leak said.

“Now that we’ve made it to states, we have this newfound confidence,” Thomas added.

Daniel Mends’ first-place finish in the 55-meter hurdles was also a big accomplishment. Daniel qualified for states for the first time with a first-place time of 7.82 seconds at sectionals. His time was just a tick below his personal best mark of 7.78 seconds set a week prior to sectionals.

Daniel said he was confident heading into sectionals because of his past results, but he also knew there were other runners who could post times around his personal best.

“I was expecting someone to challenge me and somebody actually did challenge me,” Daniel said.

After posting the fastest time in preliminaries, Daniel was challenged in the event final by Darius Carroway of Timber Creek Regional High School. Daniel managed to edge Carroway for first place and punch his ticket to states.

The first-place finishes weren’t the only triumphs Burlington Township had at sectionals. The school had individuals qualify for states in four other events and got a surprise, second-place performance from the boys 4x400m relay team.

Like the girls, the boys relay team felt it could run in the top-six at sectionals, but didn’t expect to contend for first place.

“We all assumed we were going to get through, especially with Jalen (Jones),” senior Jason Mihalik said. “We didn’t expect to get second, though. There were a few teams that were listed ahead of us.”

Senior Jalen Jones gave the relay team a huge spark. Jones had also finished second place in the 400-meter and 800-meter runs at sectionals and ran the final leg of the relay team’s run.

Sectionals was the first time Mihalik, Jones, sophomore Donovan Wright and senior Rikhin Bhuta had run together all season. However, they had no problems teaming up for the relay.

“There’s a lot of good chemistry that comes out of the four of us since we’ve been running since last year,” Jones said. “There’s no bad connection between any of us.”

Bhuta, who also qualified for states with a sixth-place finish in the 1,600-meter run, believes the relay team has greater confidence entering states and will be aiming to qualify for the season’s biggest event, the NJSIAA Meet of Champions.

“The first goal is to … get our best possible time,” he said. “Top six is the main goal. We obviously want to move on.”

Also qualifying for states from Burlington Township was Wright in the 55-meter hurdles and junior Gianna Abbruzzese in the girls shot put.