Following her graduation from Cherokee High School last month, Nikki Clifford wrapped up perhaps the most successful individual athletic school year in Chiefs’ history, with much success between cross country, winter track and spring track in 2021-’22.
Looking back at the start of the school year, head coach Mark Jarvis feels that much of Clifford’s success can be traced back to the beginning of cross country, when she won the senior class race of the Cherokee Challenge, helping the girls team win its first title in the meet.
“It really set the tone as to what she was going to expect from herself in terms of races this year,” Jarvis said. “Winning the class race was pretty big for her at that time, and she was right there with the fastest time of the day … It set the bar for what she’d expect in races she’d run over the course of the school year.”
Cherokee went on to have record-breaking cross-country and winter track seasons, with Clifford leading the way. That led her to postseason honors and recognitions, including being named South Jersey Sports Weekly’s 2021-’22 honoree for both girls seasons.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Clifford continued her dominance on the track as the calendar flipped to spring. Once again, her accomplishments were many; The Cherokee senior was the Burlington County Open champion in the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter races.
Clifford also swept the competition in those same three races at the South Jersey Group 4 sectional meet before taking gold in the 800 and 3,200 at states, and was part of the team’s state-champion 4×800-meter relay team.
For that, Clifford is South Jersey Sports Weekly’s 2021-’22 Girls Spring Track Athlete of the Year.
Cherokee’s cross-country and track rosters are deep, specifically when it comes to long-distance runners. Fortunately, despite Clifford being a senior, teammates such as Kelsey Niglio (junior), Kerry O’Day (sophomore) and Megan Niglio (freshman), among others, still have significant time left at Cherokee.
The immense success the Chiefs reached this past season and school year, Jarvis said, is largely thanks to Clifford, whose play could benefit the program for years to come.
“I told [Clifford] before the State Relay Championships during indoor, we’d only ever won one relay title there in school history before this season,” Jarvis said. “They went there and won four … It showed the girls on this team that things are possible when you put the work in.
“I think that’s going to play over into next year’s team, because they’re not just dreams that could happen,” he added. “They’ve seen it happen.”
It’s been a year to remember for Clifford, who will head to the University of Oklahoma to continue her athletic career. After a 2021-’22 school year that boasted what seemed to be countless individual awards and team titles, Clifford said the aforementioned Cherokee Challenge win helped boost her and her team’s confidence early on, something she feels helped fuel her team’s fire all season long.
The recent Cherokee graduate has rewritten the record books for the Chiefs, replacing program greats Clifford herself has looked up to over the years. Despite the constant year-long success, it’s still a difficult thing for her to fully realize.
“From the start, it was one of those things that I had in the back of my mind that was possible, because those girls that are on those boards are phenomenal,” she said. “Some of them are still competing at Olympic trials and whatnot.
“It felt like a farfetched goal at the start for sure, but once we started breaking relay records, I started looking at individual records, and they didn’t feel that far away anymore.”
Clifford said she owes much of her success to her teammates, who helped push her as the season progressed, but especially during the summer before her last school year started, when much of a runner’s progress is typically made.
Without those teammates, Clifford said she might not have gone as far or as fast, which makes her even more excited to see what players at Cherokee can do next year.
“It feels like I had one of my teammates right behind me in every event, and when you have people that close to you doing what they can, especially when they’re so young, it motivated me that much more,” she said.
“I look at the way those girls approach every run and practice …” she added. “They’re going to see a lot of success in the next few years because of how talented and competitive they are.”