History in the making

Despite losing top runners to graduation and COVID challenges, Cherokee’s boys and girls ran to South Jersey championships in the same season for the first time in school history.

For the first time in school history, Cherokee High School’s girls and boys cross country teams won a sectional championship in the same season. Perhaps even more impressive: both Chiefs teams ran to championship seasons despite losing stellar senior classes to graduation last spring. (Photo provided)

In a season and preseason filled with starts and stops, Cherokee High School’s cross-country teams pushed forward and never looked back.

When the first team practice came late in the summer, as COVID restrictions relaxed, “it felt like Christmas morning,” said boys’ coach Jeff Thompson. The Chiefs lost a good bit of talent to graduation the previous spring — including four runners who placed in the top 14 at the South Jersey Group 4 meet in 2019 — but Thompson liked the leadership Niko Grilli and Brett Shea were showing off early.

“I don’t think they can adequately state what they meant to the team and how great of a job they did in keeping the team organized, in a way that a coach can never do, even under normal circumstances,” Thompson said. “In abnormal circumstances, they really were the glue for the team that the coaches could really rely on in the spring and the summer, setting the tone with their training, the way they went about their business and stayed focused and motivated.”

As he saw his own, new-look girls team work together, Cherokee coach Mark Jarvis was excited with the promise, too. But, realistically, he thought competing for a sectional title “was a long shot.” 

That didn’t stop one of his assistants, Dave Patruzzi, from yelling it out one day in mid-September as the team went over its goals for the season.

“He was just throwing that out there to get them to think big,” Jarvis said of a team that didn’t have any seniors in its top seven and had a few freshmen relatively new to the sport. 

“But as we saw them race and began to see the season unfold,” Jarvis continued, “it became more evident that that was going to be a possibility.”

Cherokee’s cross-country teams made history in 2020. On Nov. 14, both the girls and boys teams ran their way to sectional titles in the South Jersey Group 4 meet at DREAM Park in Logan Township. 

It’s the first time in school history that both teams are South Jersey champions in the same season.

“One of the things that made this year so special, for both of us, is neither team came into the season as the favorite,” Thompson noted. “We both came in as the underdog. So you have that challenge, and the number of challenges everyone all across the country faced with COVID-19. 

“To know that you’re doing things that have enabled you to be the best in your region, in your section, is a really great feeling,” he added. “And, on my end, to share that with the others I work with, it’s really cool, to see as a program we’re going in the same direction.”

For the Cherokee girls, the sectional championship was the first for the team since 2003, the year before their most veteran runner on this year’s team, junior Nicole Clifford, was born. After finishing fourth in 2017, third in 2018 and second in 2019, the Chiefs reached the top with a dominating effort: Five of the first eight girls who reached the finish line were from Cherokee, led by freshman Kerry O’Day.

“I was just glad I finished,” said O’Day, who finished second overall behind Cherry Hill East’s Alexis Tepper. “And then I realized the whole team was right behind me and I knew we were going to do well. And that was cool.”

Right behind O’Day were sophomore Kelsey Niglio (third), Clifford (fourth), and fellow freshmen Olivia Parkinson (seventh) and Alaina Bromley (eighth). Junior Nicole Falzone (15th) and freshman Allison Rathman (17th) also finished in the top 20 as the Chiefs collected 24 team points to beat Cherry Hill East (61).

“It’s so awesome,” Clifford said of the team title. “To know you have a team where maybe you don’t  run your best race but you have all of those girls to back you up — it’s an amazing feeling. It doesn’t even compare to running individually. Having all of those girls there, having your back, it makes you that much stronger mentally and physically. It was awesome.”

On the boys side, Brett Shea said this year’s sectional win was more exciting than last year, when the Chiefs won the Group 4 state championship. 

Part of that was because the state meet was somewhat anticlimactic, since a computer snafu caused an hours-long wait to see the results. But it was also because expectations weren’t quite the same this year, with three of the top six runners from last year’s sectional meet (and four of the top 14) members of Cherokee’s Class of 2020 last summer.

And Cherokee finished second to Cherry Hill East in the Olympic Conference meets just a few weeks before sectionals.

“The whole season we were preparing for sectionals,” Shea said “The whole time. We want to peak here, we want to peak here. So we knew we had to take the extra precautions to stay healthy, staying away from people and making that sacrifice with our social life for the greater good. We knew that we wanted to win sectionals really badly.”

Shea finished sixth, behind fellow senior Grilli (third) and in front of sophomore Patrick Ditmars (11th), Dylan Odud (12th) sophomore Conor Jacob (16th) and freshman Nick Kuenkel (18th), as Cherokee racked up 48 points to beat East and Southern (both had 63 points) and win back-to-back South Jersey titles for the first time in 20 years.

“It was a great feeling,” Shea said. “I came across the line and turned around and I saw our guys pulling in and I actually started tearing up.” 

“It really showed the hard work we had put out,” Grilli added. “Because we knew we were losing a bunch of great guys, but we also knew we had a ton of potential. … We formed a great work ethic and (the new runners) worked hard. It meant a lot for all of that to show.”