Highland’s Grace Wassell joins father as sectional champion

The Highland freshman made a statement at the South Jersey Group 3 sectional meet, winning her first career high school race by 28 seconds over defending champion Alexa Palmieri of Ocean City.

Highland freshman Grace Wassell announced her arrival on the high school cross country scene when she won the South Jersey Group 3 sectional meet by 28 seconds on Nov. 9. Wassell’s efforts helped the Tartans qualify for the NJSIAA Group 3 championships for the first time since 2009.

Twenty-five years ago, Highland runner Jay Wassell won the South Jersey Group 4 boys cross country sectional meet for the first time with a time of 15:40. Wassell would go on to win the sectional again in 1995, becoming the first runner in school history at the time to win multiple sectional titles.

On Nov. 9, another Wassell joined the history books at Highland. Freshman Grace Wassell, Jay’s daughter, won the South Jersey Group 3 girls cross country sectional with a personal best time of 18:54. Wassell became the second Highland girls runner and seventh overall to win a sectional meet.

“It was really exciting,” she said. “Nobody really knows who I am yet since I am a freshman, so being able to go out there and be out front and being able to take the lead like that is a really nice feeling.”

To say cross country is a family affair would be an understatement for the Wassells. Grace grew up in a family of runners, with both of her parents as well as several aunts, uncles and cousins all competing in the sport. Grace is also not the only member of her family competing in the sport at Highland right now. Her older brother, junior Cole Wassell, runs on Highland’s boys team.

“We all somehow just love the sport,” Grace Wassell said, “so we’re all in it and we’re all competing.”

With Jay having helped out with Highland’s cross country program in recent years, girls head coach Josh Krowicki knew about Grace prior to her arrival this season. Krowicki knew she would have the talent and speed to compete at a high level, but didn’t know how quickly she would make the transition to high school.

Wassell began to emerge as the calendar flipped to October. She finished in second place in three consecutive meets leading up to sectionals: the South Jersey Track Coaches Association Open, the Camden County Championships and the Tri-County Conference Showcase Championships.

It was at the conference championships where Wassell gained a ton of confidence. She ran a time of exactly 19 minutes and presented a real challenge to Kingsway’s Ashlynne Burke, a 2018 Meet of Champions qualifier, for first place.

“The majority of the time, I was around third or fourth,” Wassell said. “I was running side-by-side with the second girl and (Burke) had a 10-second lead on both of us. I thought about it and really thought I could pull away. I did and was able to catch up with her in the last 800 (meters). But at the end, she just caught me, she came back.”

 

“She’s figuring out how to run races,” Krowicki added about Wassell’s late-season success. “She’s starting to think that she can win races. The Tri-County one, she actually took the lead and she got snuck at the end. The county race, she was going for the lead and she figured out if she had gone a little earlier, she might have gotten it.”

During the sectional meet at Delsea, Wassell not only took the lead early enough in the race, but she held onto it until the end. Wassell passed Ocean City junior Alexa Palmieri, last year’s sectional winner, during the second leg into the woods of the course. From there, she kept building her lead and went on to win the race by 28 seconds.

“Since you do finish on the track, I think it was definitely easier to see where I was at,” Wassell said. “Around the 200 (meters remaining) mark, I was able to peek over my shoulder and see how far back she was and see that I was definitely going to be the winner of this race. It was just going through my head, all of the people in front of me at the finish line, all of the people standing around, cheering and stuff, it was crazy.

“I knew that I could definitely win something,” Wassell added about her expectations for the season. “I didn’t know if it was going to be that or just any other meet. But yeah, winning something that big was crazy, especially being a freshman.”

On top of taking first place, Wassell achieved her goal of running a time of less than 19 minutes. Her finish was also the difference in the team score, as Highland edged GCIT by one point to qualify the entire team for the group championships.

“Our girls team hasn’t been able to make it to states in 10 years,” Wassell said. “So for the five of us, to make it to states…was really good.”