Southern Regional Girls Cross-Country Squad Repeats as Ocean County Champs

Oct 24, 2018
Photo by: David Biggy The Southern Regional girls cross-country team gathers around its championship plaque after repeating as Ocean County champs on Oct. 18.

Heading into the Ocean County Cross-Country Championships on Oct. 18, it was almost a given that the Southern Regional High School girls squad was going to be near the top of the team standings. The Rams were the reigning champs, after all, and brought back most of their crew from last fall.

The difference this time around was that now-graduated Taylor Mulch was hanging out near the starting line as a spectator while two freshmen who had joined the team over the summer had worked their way into the Rams’ typical seven-girl lineup for the varsity race. So, while it seemed Southern was as strong as it had been last year, winning back-to-back titles in the county meet never is a sure thing.

“We wanted to win it again, and we were confident,” said senior Gianna Citarella, a four-year starter who led the Rams to their second straight county crown by crossing the finish line in ninth overall with a time of 19:41. “When we come here for this meet, it’s always about getting the championship. (Coach Jason) Capelli didn’t try to psych us up or anything, but we all felt like we could do it.”

Still, the Rams, and probably any of the other teams that typically run near the top, weren’t expecting the battle they received from Point Pleasant Borough.

“We didn’t realize how good Point Borough was until we were halfway through the race,” said junior Emily Furlong, who ran alongside Citarella for most of the 3.1 miles and finished right behind her in 10th with a time of 19:43.  “They ran really well, but we were good enough to hold them off. Today’s race went out really fast, but it didn’t feel as fast, maybe because it was colder than it’s been. But we were OK with that pace.”

The Panthers almost made headlines at Ocean County Park in Lakewood, as their top three runners – Molly Kate Sabia, Sarah Kimek and Kiera Munyan – finished first, third and fifth, respectively, but the back end of Southern’s train ran better. Rams freshman Rachel Short finished 11th in 19:48, while junior Jaelyn D’Amelio crossed the line 17th in 20:18 and freshman Olivia Horton wasn’t far behind, in 22nd with a time of 20:37. Even though not scored as part of the top-five-finisher tally, junior Alexa Mulch was right behind Horton, in 23rd at 20:41.

Given where the Panthers’ fourth and fifth runners finished – 27th and 29th, around Southern senior Kaitlyn Brischler, who crossed the line in 21:11 – the Rams ultimately won the race as they did last year, utilizing their third, fourth and fifth runners to secure the title. Southern’s 59 points was six ahead of Borough, while Toms River North took third with 80 points.

“It’s a great way to finish out my four years running here by winning the championship again,” Citarella said. “It’s kind of sad I won’t be in this race anymore, but it feels good to continue our winning tradition. And I know our team is going to be just fine when I graduate. We have a lot young runners who will be here to carry on the tradition.”

Speaking of traditions, it seems as if Barnegat freshman Lillian Sarno already has become a trend-setter for the Bengals. Sarno was the highest finisher among the locals, finishing in seventh overall with a time of 19:17, just 11 seconds behind Munyan and three behind Jackson Memorial senior Kaitlyn Sauickie.

“The wind was hard, but I had Kiera with me for most of the race, so that helped keep me going strong,” said Sarno, who was right at Munyan’s side or on her heels until the last quarter-mile. “I stayed focused and pretty much shut everybody else out. Everybody was talking about how this is a big race, but I just wanted to go into it like it was another race and run the way I normally run.”

As Toms River South’s Jade Tricomy, the defending individual champ, went out super fast to set what was a torrid pace through the first mile, Sarno settled into sixth-seventh position and kept her pace constant –even as the pace got slightly faster later in the race as Sabia not only ran down Tricomy, but ultimately finished 26 seconds ahead of her. As Munyan left Sarno to run down Sauickie late, the Bengals youngster just stayed where she was and finished really strong.

“I didn’t realize they went out so fast,” she said. “While I was running, I thought I was going slower than normal. For some reason, it just felt that way. But I really was going faster than normal. I felt good, though.”

Sarno said part of her motivation to run near the front comes from a competitiveness within her family. Her older brother, Kyle, was a solid runner for Barnegat, and now Lillian is intent on taking over the family bragging rights.

“My brother and I always talk about how good he was as a freshman,” she said. “But everybody brags now that I’m becoming better than him, so that’s a good motivator.”

As for motivators, the Southern Regional boys likely will need to use their finish in last week’s county meet as one not only for the upcoming Shore Conference Championships, but for the state meets as well. The three-time defending team champions ended up fifth with 157 points, well behind champion Toms River North, which scored 50. Jackson Memorial finished second with 98.

“Our No. 2 guy went down during the race, but even if he stayed in, we knew North was the team to beat this year, and they ran phenomenal today,” said coach Scott Baker, whose squad sort of was rebuilding this season after graduating three great runners in Evan Adanatzian, Paul Keyes and Connor McBride. “Our cohesiveness wasn’t there today. We were spread out a lot. But we had a lot of underclassmen who ran today, so they’ll get better from this.”

As expected, Southern sophomore Jackson Braddock was near the front of the pack – save Point Borough phenom Devin Hart, who smoked the field by running a 15:21, some 43 seconds ahead of North’s first two runners – and ended up fifth in 16:17, right behind Jackson’s Noah Coakley.

But behind Braddock, the Rams were scattered. Senior Trevor Middleton and junior Jayant Jani crossed the line in 17:15 to place 28th and 29th overall, respectively, while Southern’s fourth runner, junior Dean Bates, ended up 45th.

“As unfortunate as it is to lose as a team, it should help motivate the guys who are going to come back and build us up from here,” Baker said. “We always have the expectation to be near the top, and we are a good team. These guys are solid, and most of them can hang with Jackson. But there’s no magic to any of this. Every day is different, and we’re going to have good days and bad days. It’s just part of the growing process.”

As for the rest of the locals, Barnegat senior Gareth Aguilar had a strong race, finishing 19th in 17:01, followed closely by sophomore Peter Dizon in 25th at 17:10. Following Southern’s second and third guys, Pinelands’ first two – sophomore Mart Villanueva and senior Justin Schlatmann – crossed the line in 36th and 39th with respective times of 17:28 and 17:32.

— David Biggy

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