By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
MILLVILLE — At this point, it almost seems as if Mainland Regional senior Alyssa Aldridge could fall out of bed and clock a sub-18:10 to win a cross country race whenever she wants.
It obviously hasn’t been that easy, as Aldridge nursed a foot injury throughout the regular season, but when championship season rolls around there hasn’t been anybody better the past two years. Aldridge followed up an Atlantic County championship last week with an easy victory at the Cape-Atlantic League Championships Thursday afternoon at the New Jersey Motorsports Park. She clocked in at 18:06.16 and beat second-place finisher Raelynne Miller, of Millville, by more than 32 second to capture the third league championship of her already legendary career.
Aldridge now has four county titles, three league crowns and two straight NJSIAA Meet of Champions gold medals. She’ll attempt to win her third in a row in a few weeks at Holmdel Park in Monmouth County. Aldridge showed no ill effects Thursday from the bone bruise in her foot that kept her out of regular-season competition.
“I’m feeling a lot better than I have been. I’m getting stronger every week, and that’s all I can ask for,” said Aldridge, who has had to do a lot of training in the pool to stay in shape. “I’ve only been on land for less than a month. In the beginning of the season, my best case scenario was to be back by sectionals. So, to be able to race last week and again this week is a blessing. I’m just taking it in stride and not worrying about the times too much, but rather how I’m feeling.”
The start for both the girls and boys races was a little hectic with a muddy patch about 50 yards from the starting line, which forced runners into a pack quicker than they may have liked. Aldridge simply bided her time until she could get to the woods and take command.
“I love these conditions. I’m really happy the temperatures dropped. I was looking at the forecast a few days ago and I was like, ‘oh, my God, it’s going to be so warm.’ But I’m loving the cold,” she said. “In every race you need to get out to a good start, and this time it was a little confusing because they altered the course a little bit where they have you hug the fence, and a lot of girls aren’t used to that. Girls were going in different directions and cutting each other off. It was kind of a confusing start, but it worked out.”
Ocean City took three of the first six spots to beat out Egg Harbor Township by two points to win the team title, with Millville, Wildwood Catholic and Mainland rounding out the top five. Alexa Weber, long one of Aldridge’s top rivals as well as a training partner, took third behind Miller by clocking in at 18:48.51, just ahead of Holy Spirit’s Angela Bannon. Ocean City’s Casey McLees and Alexa Palmieri finished fifth and sixth, respectively, and Spirit junior Paige Sofield edged EHT’s Olivia Shafer for seventh by less than a second with a furious sprint to the finish.
“I was hoping to be in the top five, but I was sick coming in, having some lung problems. I felt good, though (during the race). My lungs were hurting a little bit from the cold and it was a tough race. But I just had to keep reminding myself that the pain is temporary,” Sofield said. “When I started hearing everybody cheering (I made my kick). I was in front of her the whole race and when we came over the bridge, she kicked. I was going to kick with her, but there was still about 400 meters left, so I decided to wait. Right when I saw the finish line, I took off.”
The Eagles took the Nos. 8-10 spots with Shafer, Rachel Roesch and Madelyn Shick, and also had two more top-15 finishers in Gianna Scarangelli (12th) and Michaelea Pomatto (13th).
“I have a training group with (former Ocean City star) Brittany Eberson, with Angela Bannon of Holy Spirit, Alexa Weber, Emily Dirkes and Casey McLees. We all train together, do weight training. We’re basically all on a team, just with different uniforms. We all cheer for each other and want the best for each other, so it’s really fun to have that camaraderie with girls who are considered rivals,” Aldridge said. “Each year is different, so it’s hard to compare them. This year was definitely a challenge because of coming back from the injury, and the girls in the league have been doing really well this year. Raelynne Miller is doing an awesome job and I’m really happy for her to be having a breakout season this year. The competition was definitely tough this year, and I knew I was going to have to work hard going into this race.”
Holy Spirit put three into the top 20, as sophomore Jenna Bradberry (20:50.64, 18th) joined Bannon and Sofield.
“We’re doing really good. Our practices have doubled, we’re doing twice as many miles as we did last year and we’re a lot more in shape,” Sofield said of her team’s success. “It’s cool, because last year we weren’t that good, but now everybody knows us.”
On the boys side, Mainland senior Nick Berenotto made a late surge, but wasn’t able to overtake Lower Cape May Regional’s Will Berger, who took the title in 16:09.30, less than two seconds ahead of Berenotto (16:11.16). But Mainland put five runners into the top 10 to steal the team title from arch rival Ocean City, last year’s team champion.
“The strategy going out was to stick with Ocean City’s top two guys and just hold on to them because our plan was to put five guys in front of their big three. I saw the opportunity coming out of the woods. I had beaten their second guy going into the woods. I got to the hill and one of my guys was struggling, so I was like, ‘come on, we have to finish this.’ And I just went for it,” Berenotto said. “I’ve been running since my sophomore year, and every year we’ve finished in second place (behind Ocean City). Since this is my last year, I wanted to get it so bad. It’s so amazing, even more amazing than I thought it would be. We lost to them in our first dual meet of the season, but we beat them at the Stockton Open, and to do it again feels amazing.”
Ocean City, led by a third-place finish from senior Jesse Schmeizer, took second in the team standings. Anthony Conte, Korey Greene, Luke Kramer, Tyler Greene and Gavyn Fox swept places 13 through 17 for the Red Raiders. Mainland’s Kevin Antczak, Artur Simoes Menezes and Mikin Patel finished fourth through sixth, respectively, while Tiger Carey — wearing his signature “The Flash” socks — clocked in at 16:35.22 to take ninth. Egg Harbor Township got top-10 finishes from Gobi Thurairajah (7th), Brian Catania (8th) and Jordan Callahan (10th) to finish third in the team standings.
Berenotto said he was impressed with the way Berger ran to come out as the league champion.
“He’s a stud runner. He’s been running sub-16 times all season, so I knew he was going to be the pace leader,” Berenotto said. “Today, I was just coming out here trying to win. I’m more than happy with second place because as a team we finished first. We lost only one senior coming into this year and we got a few new guys from soccer and trained them up. We worked on our running style, trying to do more of a pack running. We’re not trying to go out and win in the beginning. We’re trying to win at the end, when it matters.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays