Cherry Hill East seniors Jack Gaffin and Madison McNiff led the Cougars to victories in the Division III race earlier this month at the SJ Open, which was held at DREAM Park in Logan Township for the first time after the annual race had called Delsea High School home for years.
East was able to secure victories in both the boys and girls races in what were tight contests between Cherry Hill East and Southern Regional High School, with the boys winning after scoring 44 points compared to Southern Regional’s 52 points while the girls edged out a close 33-36 victory.
For both teams, it was their third straight SJ Open title in four years, as last year’s race was canceled due to the pandemic. Gaffin finished third overall for the boys with a time of 16:07 while McNiff finished second overall in the girls race with a time of 19:14.
According to Cherry Hill East boys cross country head coach Chris Corey, who is in the midst of his sixth year at the helm, senior captains Dylan Hagan and Ethan Anderer have been battling injuries throughouts parts of the last two years but were able to finish eighth and 12th overall, respectively, for East.
Perhaps most surprising this year, Corey said, has been the emergence of Gaffin as the top runner for East after being a junior varsity runner as recently as last year.
“Hagen and Anderer are our two seniors that have actually been on varsity since their sophomore years, unfortunately they’ve battled injuries the last two seasons and are still kind of getting over them,” Corey said. “But one of the biggest surprises has been Jack Gaffin. He was junior varsity last year and his personal best was 18:48 before this season, so he’s really come along in the past year after a great spring track season.
“He’s probably been our most dedicated senior this year, so the combination of the leadership from the two seniors I previously mentioned coupled with the success Gaffin is having early on this year, it really helps a lot of those younger guys along the way,” Corey added.
In preparation for his senior year, Gaffin said he made sure this past summer was his best season of training for an upcoming season yet, making sure to run alongside classmates who had been faster than him during his first three years.
“I made sure to surround myself with better people on runs and didn’t take any days off in preparing for this season,” Gaffin said. “This was probably the first summer where I actually trained every single day … I had a pretty good spring season last year and with our top three from that year graduating, I thought that I really needed to step up and be a bigger part of the team.”
Coming into the season, Gaffin said he was aiming to reach a PR of 16:40, which he promptly beat in his first race of the season and has been under in three of his four races this year.
As for the girls, McNiff finished just four seconds short of her career PR of 19:10, which she had set about two weeks prior at the Six Flags Wild Safari Invitational.
Anthony Maniscalco, who coaches the team alongside fellow co-head coach Tyler Brake, said the team typically uses the meet as a measuring stick for how they currently stack up against schools it will see in about a month at the sectional meet.
“This serves as a great barometer for us with sectionals coming up, we get to see some great teams here that we go up against in just about a month,” Maniscalco said. “The girls team has always put a good emphasis on this course in years past, especially since it’s the same course as sectionals, so that’s a huge plus. We put a huge stake in the South Jersey Open.”
Speaking about McNiff specifically, he said the senior runner has been critical to the program throughout her four years, making tremendous progress each year.
Originally splitting her cross country and spring track seasons with a season of swimming in the middle during her freshman and sophomore years, McNiff made the decision to go all-in on running year round for her junior and senior years. After much of her junior year was changed due to COVID, she said she feels like she’s finally gotten used to a year-round running schedule and is now reaping the benefits.
“I would always take that winter off for swimming, but I really feel like it helped with my distance running to be doing it year round and not have to essentially build my running strength back up at the start of every season,” McNiff said. “This year has had me practicing more consistently than I did last year with the different pods and whatnot that we had … my goal for this season is to break 19 minutes, which I’m still aiming for.”