Ask any cross country or track and field athlete where he or she would most like to compete one day, and the answer will almost certainly be Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, home track for the University of Oregon.
For that reason, Haddonfield girls track and field coach John Russo said it was a goal to bring qualifying members of his team to Eugene this year, when it was announced that the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation would host the Outdoor Nationals at the facility in 2021 for the first time in history, bringing the best high school track and field athletes from across the country to the sports Mecca.
“We’ve gone to nationals before, but nationals had never been held in Eugene, Oregon, for the outdoor track and field nationals,” said Russo. “This was really, really neat to be a part of. As soon as the kids found out it was being held there, they started reaching out to me to find out if it was something that could be possible.
“And with this group,” Russo added, “it kind of seemed like a no-brainer that if this was something that they wanted to pursue, that we would make it happen.”
Earlier in the year, the Bulldawgs ran away with the 4×800 at the 52nd annual Meet of Champions, with Lindsay Colflesh, Allison Colflesh, Payton Weiner and Olivia Stoner running a 9:10.24 to win by more than 10 seconds over the second place finishing team and capture the program’s first career 4×800 title.
In Eugene earlier this month, the combo of the Stoner and the Colflesh sisters, paired with Sarah Naticchia, placed second in the crowded field to finish the 4×800 in 9:00.51, good enough to once again break the Haddonfield school record, which the team did at the Cherokee Relays in May. Their record time in Eugene is good for 10th in state history and the best in South Jersey history.
Furthermore during the once-in-a-lifetime trip, the team of Weiner, Naticchia and the Colflesh sisters finished fifth in the distance medley relay with a time of 12:00.47, good for a new program record, a Camden County record and second place in the South Jersey history books, making the five girls All-Americans in the process.
Russo, who is in his 15th year as coach of the cross country program, noted that the growth he’s seen in the five seniors over the years has been second to none.
“To have a talented group like this coming up comes with a lot of challenges,” said Russo. “There’s the challenge of expectations … the challenge of working together. But the amount that these girls grew in these four years as both athletes and as young women has been incredible.
“From where they started to where they ended up has been a special thing to be a part of,” Russo added. “They changed our cross country program, they changed our track and field program and I know for a fact that they changed me.”
Of the five seniors, the Colflesh sisters, Stoner and Weiner were highly thought of as they entered high school, according to the coach, and there was plenty of excitement about what they could do individually and together during high school and after running in middle school.
Naticchia came to Haddonfield Memorial High School as a field hockey and lacrosse player, and joined winter track in her sophomore year as a way to stay in shape for fall and spring sports. The decision changed the direction of her high-school and now collegiate career, as Naticchia prepares to head to Harvard in the fall as a member of the cross country and track teams.
“I thought I might as well do something to stay in shape for lacrosse, but I ended up absolutely loving running and said I’m never going to do a sport with a ball again,” said Naticchia. “I went ahead and did spring track and cross country right after that, and I definitely attribute that to my coaches and my teammates. I don’t think I’ve ever been with a more motivated group in my life.”
After a cancelled outdoor season in junior year, Naticchia said she and her fellow classmates made it a point to work their hardest over the summer and fall to achieve what they could during their final year at Haddonfield.
“We definitely had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder,” said Naticchia. “We knew that nothing was a given in this new world we were going to navigate, but we also knew we were going to work as hard as possible to be considered one of the best teams in New Jersey or even in history, not for any trophy or title, but just to know in our hearts we gave it our all one final time.”