Monday, May 23, 2022

Girls Indoor Track Athlete of the Year: Cherokee’s Nikki Clifford

Oklahoma-bound senior continues historic season for the Chiefs

Special to The Sun
Nikki Clifford continued her historic 2021-’22 senior year with Cherokee during this past indoor track season, securing four individual sectional titles and an individual state title. She achieved numerous other individual and team accomplishments in what was a record-breaking season for the Chiefs.

If you were to say out loud all the accomplishments of Cherokee senior Nikki Clifford so far this school year — both individually and with her team — it would more than likely take a few deep breaths to finish.

Between a plethora of cross country achievements and an indoor track season that saw much success, it’s more than fair to say that Clifford’s 2021-’22 season will end up as the most successful single running season in Cherokee history. 

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“Easily,” head coach Mark Jarvis said, when asked if that might be the case.

Clifford was named South Jersey Sports Weekly’s Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year earlier this school year due to her enormous contributions as the lead runner for a team that wrapped up a South Jersey Group 4 sectional title, Group 4 state title, Meet of Champions title and Nike Northeast Regional title. 

For her efforts this past indoor season, Clifford is also South Jersey Sports Weekly’s 2021-’22 Girls Indoor Track Athlete of the Year as well. 

The Oklahoma-bound seniors achievements from this past indoor season read like a checklist: Being a part of four state winning relay teams to help capture Cherokee’s first ever NJSIAA Group 4 Relay Championship, four individual sectional titles to help clinch the programs first ever South Jersey Group 4 title, a Group 4 state title in the 1,600-meter race and a Meet of Champions title and meet record in the 4×800-meter relay, amongst additional successes from this past season. 

Both Clifford and Jarvis credit much of her success to the work she put in near the end of her junior outdoor track season and the summer leading into her senior year, with Jarvis saying her talent was always evident even if her races ultimately didn’t show that talent earlier in her high school career. 

Seeing how she was able to rally her younger teammates into such a successful season during cross country, and how seamlessly it carried over into the indoor track season, Jarvis said Clifford has served as the catalyst to make the past two running seasons so successful.

“It means everything; the big thing about this team is that everyone is bought in and when they see someone doing well it almost kind of pulls them along to end up doing something even better that they didn’t think they were capable of before that,” Jarvis said.

“When I sit down and write everything that [Clifford] has done in just this past indoor season, I almost don’t believe it even though I’ve seen her do it all, not to mention that she’s also a three-time All-American.”

Clifford said the team environment cultivated at Cherokee this season is what she owes much of her individual and team success to, thanks to a group of girls who work hard to push one another each and every day, helping the program reach new heights on what feels like every weekend. 

“This atmosphere we have here is something that I’ve never experienced before,” Clifford said. “I’ve been telling my coach that all year. It’s different if you had one girl kind of clicking like that as opposed to really a whole team showing up everyday and giving 100 percent, that makes a world of a difference.” 

As the school year continues to progress, all-time records and times, as well as program and school firsts, are continuing to be broken and reached one after another. Clifford and her teammates achievements in cross country — while impressive as possible — can often feel under appreciated or underrepresented due to a lack of statistics or record boards, such as are possible with many other sports. 

But continued success in indoor track allowed for much more physical recognition around the building in terms of all-time history, with the changing of numerous school records in certain events, something that Clifford said was fun to see happen.

“It’s awesome to see the results really pay off in a physical way, like with our record board being changed,” Clifford said. “Since the summer, I knew there was something special about this team, but being able to see it put on paper and put in front of us is something that’s really special, and it’s something that motivates us to want to do it even more after we do it once to keep that ball rolling.”

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