Running with a purpose: Cherry Hill East seeks sectional title this month

Cherry Hill East last won a sectional championship in 2015, the final of
three straight championships. The Cougars were led by individual sectional
champ Aaron Groff back then. In 2020, Groff’s younger brother, Aidan
(center), who finished first in the Olympic Conference meet last month, and
teammates Aidan Eyre and Gabe Rodriguez give East a fighting chance to
collect a championship this month. (RYAN LAWRENCE/The Sun)

In each of the last three seasons, the boys on Cherry Hill High School East’s cross-country’s team had an easy target to chase at nearly every big meet: Cherokee.

The Cougars and Chiefs share the same conference and division (Olympic American), compete in the same section in the postseason (South Jersey Group 4) and go to school in neighboring towns (Cherokee, of course, is in Marlton).

A year ago at the sectional championship, East was trying to collect its first title since 2015. They had to settle for second place to Cherokee, which finished first or second in five consecutive South Jersey Group 4 championship meets.

The way it’s played out, in nearly every race of East’s high school careers, East is Wile E. Coyote to Cherokee’s Road Runner. But for the Cougars, last year was still an improvement: they had finished third in 2018 and eighth in 2017.

“I feel like we’ve been closing the gap between us and Cherokee since our freshman year,” senior Aidan Eyre said.

“I know for me, whenever I see orange in a race, I know that they’re usually going to run pretty fast,” added fellow senior Gabe Rodriguez. “So you want to stay with them or even beat them, best case scenario. It’s nice to have them a town over, because you always have an eye on them and you kind of know what they’re doing race to race.”

On the Saturday before Halloween, Cherry Hill East changed the narrative. At the conclusion of the Olympic Conference American Division championship meet at DREAM Park in Logan Township, the Cougars were no longer chasing the target in orange: They became the target.

Led by Aidan Groff, Eyre and Rodriguez, Cherry Hill East knocked off Cherokee to capture the conference championship meet and become the favorite to collect the Group 4 sectional title meet on Nov. 14, too.

“We’ve had guys working hard all year for this,” Groff said. “It was great. Cherokee has been one of the best teams in the state year in and year out and we’ve been behind them for a couple of years, so it means a lot to definitely beat them.”

Groff ran a 16:05 in the conference meet to finish in first place. Rodriguez (5th, 16:23) and Eyre (10th, 16:37) also placed in the top 10, while fellow East runners Dylan Hagan, Ethan Anderer and Michael McCurdy finished among the top 15 runners as the Cougars nipped the Chiefs by three points.

Following the Camden County Meet on Saturday, when they finished second to Haddonfield, all Cougar eyes will be concentrated on the biggest meet of the season in the South Jersey Group 4 sectional meet, which, like the conference meet, will take place at DREAM Park. 

“It would mean so much,” Groff said of an event that will finish a truncated 2020 season.

As with the other fall sports, the cross-country season will not have state championships this year. They won’t have a Meet of Champions, either.

“It would mean so much,” Groff said of a sectional championship. “It’s a big goal for us. We had goals to win (states) and finish in the top 3 at Meet of champs, so with sectionals being one of the biggest races, there’s definitely a lot at stake. 

“But I think we’re all prepared, which is great. I’ve visualized it enough to see it’s a reality, that there’s a very good shot of it happening. We just have to make sure everybody is healthy and makes it to that point confident and strong.”

Groff knows what it takes because he’s lived with someone who has done it. Aaron Groff, Aidan’s older brother, won the individual South Jersey Group 4 sectional title in 2015, which was also the third straight year the Cougars collected the team sectional championship, too.

“He’s been really supportive with my running,” the younger Groff said. “So it’s definitely been nice to have him to chase, to have as someone to look up to.”

After graduating from East, Aaron Groff continued his running career at the University of Pennsylvania. Eyre, Rodriguez and Aidan Groff all have aspirations to run in college, too, and could make their decisions this month.

But first, they want to stay ahead of those orange shirts and finish their high school careers with a South Jersey championship for their school. A title would be the program’s first since 2015.

“We still have a lot of improvements to make and we definitely can (get better),” Groff said. “So I definitely think the best is yet to come.”

Led by its strong senior core — from left, Aidan Eyre, Aidan Groff and Gabe Rodriguez — Cherry Hill High School East’s boys cross country team is eyeing its first sectional championship since 2015 later this month. The Cougars appear to be favorites after winning the Olympic Conference American Division meet over rival Cherokee on Oct. 24. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)