Team effort: Cherokee records first win at season-opening home meet

Clifford, Parkinson win respective races at 25th annual challenge to take home title

Special to South Jersey Sports Weekly: Cross country team members (left to right) Megan Niglio, Olivia Parkinson, Kelsey Niglio and Nikki Clifford celebrate after winning the 25th annual Cherokee Challenge on their home course earlier this month.The win was the first team title for the Cherokee squad.

Being honest, Cherokee girls cross country coach Mark Jarvis says in his 21 years as head coach of the program, his philosophy has never been to place much emphasis on team scoring at the season-opening Cherokee Challenge home meet. 

After a long summer of training and high mileage for the girls, and a long season just getting started, Jarvis says the meet typically serves as a good indicator of where the girls are in their conditioning as the year gets started. Factor in the way the meet is scored — with the place of the top finisher for each school’s four grade levels added together to assemble one final team score — and it becomes even more unconventional from a typical cross country meet’s scoring. 

“It’s really kind of our time trial as the year gets started,” Jarvis said. “We don’t put a lot of emphasis on it with it being the first meet of the season and, on another hand, it’s sometimes so hard to win because you have to have someone really good in each class to make that happen. And you never know what kind of competition you’re going to get at the meet sometime.”  

The uniqueness of the 3,200-meter race scoring has made it a highly anticipated meet coming into the cross country season for runners across South Jersey and sometimes beyond. And for the first time since inception, the Cherokee girls were able to celebrate on their home course as the winners of the meet during the 25th Cherokee Challenge. 

For the first time in its history, Cherokee had two class winners during this year’s challenge,  with sophomore Olivia Parkinson and senior Nikki Clifford both finishing first in their respective categories. Include Kelsey Niglio’s fourth-place finish in the junior race and Megan Niglio’s eighth-place finish in the freshman race, and Cherokee scored just 14 points to win handily over visiting schools. 

With last year’s race cancelled due to COVID, Clifford had the opportunity to have a massive drop in time during her final Cherokee Challenge. After getting used to the training at the high- school level and overcoming some growing pains along the way, the senior saw a drop in time of approximately 1:20, helping her go on to win her first race on the home course.

“This past summer, I focused on putting in a lot more miles and a lot more cross training and strength training to focus on those other muscles that you maybe don’t hit while just running,” Clifford said.

“It was awesome to see the beginning of my training to start to really pay off, because my junior season didn’t go as planned and my sophomore year was really me coming to terms with the training and everything,” she added. “So it’s great to see it pay off early.”

After a difficult year or so with regard to the opportunity to race sizable competition, Clifford also said it was refreshing just to be able to participate in such a race once again after a long wait,   while also having an eye-opening moment in the process.

“It was so exciting for this opening race to just serve as a way to get out there and compete, because I know a lot of us were excited to just be able to do that again … It’s been a long time,” Clifford said. “And with the way that we ran, you kind of get to realize the kind of season we can have this year.” 

As for Parkinson, despite being a sophomore, she approached the upcoming cross country season as her first one, due to how limited last season was. She looks forward to competing and working alongside her teammates. 

“I was really approaching this season as my first real cross country season,” she said. “I knew it was going to be competitive with how good our team is throughout … I just wanted to be consistent in terms of everything that can make you a better runner: band work, balance work, doing core … getting my mind ready for the season as much as my body.”

After being shut down for approximately two months last year due to knee inflammation, Parkinson stopped running and focused on cross training and complimentary work to stay active while getting much needed rest before the upcoming season.

As she was building up this past summer, coaches and upperclassmen such as Clifford began to take notice of Parkinson’s potential ahead of the Cherokee Challenge, leading to a confidence building conversation for the young runner.

While on a long run just a few days before the race, Clifford pointed out to Parkinson that she may end up having a shot at winning her sophomore race, and that if she sees such an opportunity, she should take it. Looking back, Clifford said she wants to ensure confidence in the younger runners as they grow through the program, because it’s something she believes she lacked early on in her own career.

“I love making sure that my teammates have confidence in themselves because my freshman and sophomore year, I kind of lacked that and I feel like it showed in my races early on,” Clifford said. “So while we were on that run, I said to her (Parkinson) that she has the talent and potential to run away with it and that she shouldn’t be afraid to, and she did exactly that.” 

Parkinson was skeptical at first, but sure enough, she saw the opportunity mid-race and took the opportunity.

“I was really excited to race the course since I didn’t get to last year,” she said. “I wasn’t really sure how I would place, I was just looking at it as my first race of the season and transitioning from track to cross country to get my feet wet in this kind of racing again, but I didn’t think I had much of a shot until (Clifford) told me.

“Even when she did say that, I was still a little skeptical to be honest, since it’s the beginning of the season,” Parkinson added. “But it was a big confidence booster to see it play out how it did.” 

With their wins, Clifford and Parkinson etched their names into the Cherokee record books as two of only five girls in school history to win a class race. The last Cherokee senior to have won was Megan Lacy in 2011, and the last sophomore was Lisa Burkholder in 2003.