It’s a big achievement for any high school cross country runner to qualify for the NJSIAA Meet of Champions in their freshman and sophomore seasons.
Seneca junior Emma Klouchek didn’t just qualify her first two years, she did it both times in a unique way.
Runners who are not part of one of the top two finishing teams or one of the top 10 individual finishers at the Group Championships can still qualify for the Meet of Champions by being “of the top 10 fastest times out of all the remaining runners from all Group races who have not qualified,” according to NJSIAA regulations. Runners who qualify for the Meet of Champions in this way are considered wild card selections. In each of her first two years, Klouchek got into the Meet of Champions via a wild card spot.
“It was huge,” Klouchek said as she recalled her first time getting a wild card. “The second I got a text from (former Seneca head coach Karen O’Neil) that I got a wild card to get in, I was jumping up and down. It was an amazing feeling that I got in.”
As thrilled as Klouchek was to earn back-to-back wild cards, she doesn’t want to rely on that anymore. Entering the season as one of the top runners in South Jersey, Klouchek is determined to earn a top-10 spot at the Group 3 championships and make her way back to the Meet of Champions once again.
Klouchek has taken steps to improve her training this year. In August, she traveled to the Poconos to attend a RunningWorks Inc. camp for the first time. Klouchek described the camp as an opportunity to run with athletes who run a similar pace to hers and described it as extremely beneficial to her training.
“I was in a group with girls all my pace,” Klouchek said. “I felt so much faster after it, even with the long runs, I felt I could go a little faster.”
Chad Devino is in his first year as the Seneca girls cross country head coach, but served as an assistant during Klouchek’s first two years with the team. He saw a big difference in Klouchek when she returned from the RunningWorks camp.
“I think that really opened Emma’s eyes up a little bit,” Devino said. “She had girls who pushed her at camp and Emma’s an extremely hard worker. She’s always trying to improve herself.”
Even before this season, Klouchek had already established herself as a top-tier runner in the region. In addition to her two trips to the Meet of Champions, she was named to the South Jersey Track Coaches Association All-South Jersey team each of her first two seasons.
In 2018, Klouchek became Seneca’s top runner, putting up multiple top-three finishes. Her season included a first-place finish in an Olympic Conference batch meet in September and a second-place finish at the South Jersey Group 3 sectionals in November.
As a freshman, Klouchek said Seneca’s top two seniors, Sydny Warner and Carley Tool, pushed her to become a top-tier runner. After those two graduated, Klouchek said the pressure increased as she became the Golden Eagles’ top runner. She credits O’Neil, the team’s former head coach, for inspiring her to achieve new heights. O’Neil stepped down in the offseason after receiving an assistant principal position at Seneca.
“She was a person that I always wanted to be proud of me,” Klouchek said. “I didn’t want to go down just because I lost the seniors. I wanted to keep rising and I wanted to show that I didn’t need just those girls to keep up my success.”
While Klouchek has always put up fast times throughout her career, Devino has seen her mature as a runner over the past year.
“She was always a super strong runner when she first came on as a freshman,” he said. “She’s just learning the sport and being more comfortable with herself and what she’s capable of doing.”
Klouchek started off the year strong at the season-opening Cherokee Challenge meet on Sept. 7. Klouchek finished in third place in her division for the third consecutive year and shaved seven seconds off the time she ran in 2018.
Klouchek is also eyeing a return trip to the Meet of Champions. So far, she is two-for-two when it comes to qualifying for the season’s biggest meet. With her times continuing to improve, she feels making it all four years of her career is within reach.
“I would love that sense of accomplishment to make Meet of Champions all four years,” she said. “And I would love for my team to go with me too.”