Preparation for a cross country season starts long before the first official practice of the school year. Before that, it takes hundreds of summer miles and months of strength and core training for a successful season to be in sight.
For the Cherokee girls cross country team, the inklings of a record-breaking season were evident this summer, according to many of their runners.
“To be honest, I feel like I saw the potential of this team early on over the summer with summer training,” senior Nikki Clifford said. “It wasn’t just show up, run and get out of there … It was run, strength drills, core training, stretching just every day…
“I never saw that kind of dedication and drive from the team as a whole before,” she added. “I kind of knew in July there was something special here, and it was just a matter of seeing how special it was once the 5Ks started.”
Looking back now at a season in which Cherokee defended its South Jersey Group 4 sectional title while also claiming the program’s first ever Group 4 state title, Meet of Champions title and Nike Northeast Regional title, it’s safe to say there was indeed something special right from the start.
“We all grew to realize our team’s potential as the season went on; it was a special moment after every meet at the end of the season to see us doing as well as we did together,” sophomore Kerry O’Day said.
“We were barely ranked at the beginning of the season so it was great to see us do this,” O’Day added.
The Chiefs’ season began with a meet on their home course, where they won the 25th annual Cherokee Challenge for the first time in history. A uniquely-styled race that pits each of the four class levels against one another on a 3,200-meter course, the contest demonstrated the Chiefs’ talent across all grade levels at the beginning of the season.
According to coach Mark Jarvis, he and his coaching staff had previously projected that the team was possibly a year away from a season as successful as this year’s.
“I really thought we were a year away from being able to have this kind of a season,” he said. “Judging from the season we had the previous year, I thought it might be a two-year process until we were ready to make a run at a state title.
“The key to this season was all the girls really rallying around each other in meets to pick up the girl or two that wasn’t having their best race that day,” Jarvis added. “They really raced for each other: The order of their finish didn’t matter to them.”
Junior Kelsey Niglio felt the strong bond among the girls this season helped propel them through tough practices and meets to do the best they could to pick others up when they might not have felt their best in a particular meet.
“We put a lot of work in this summer and are a tight group,” Niglio said. “We came into the year wanting to prove ourselves, and I feel like we were more than able to do that.”
As the season went on, freshman Megan Niglio said that she felt one reason the team was able to connect so well throughout the year was because many of the younger runners shared their experiences of a traditional cross country season together, given that last year’s meets were often smaller and not in their typical locations.
“It was almost like the sophomores were having their own freshman year with us after how condensed last year was for them,’’ she said. “So it was nice to experience some of those things with them during the year, like a full-fledged state meet and whatnot.
“We were going through it together rather than alone, and it made me at least feel more comfortable.”