By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Rachel Thornton is a senior at Mainland Regional this year, and she was pretty sick of watching other athletes get to take a victory lap after their team won the Atlantic County track championship at Buena Regional High School. This year, she and her teammates did something about that.
The Mustangs took the Cape-Atlantic League by storm this year, going undefeated in the American Conference while also winning the county crown and scoring the most points at the CAL championships. Team champions aren’t crowned at the CAL meet, but Mainland scored more than 100 points, easily topping Ocean City for the most on the day. Mainland was even more dominant at the county meet a week earlier, scoring 151 points, 45 more than second-place Egg Harbor Township.
“I was definitely a little bit jealous when other teams would be able to do the victory lap at the end. That’s always been one of my track dreams. We got to do that at Buena (this year), so that was pretty cool. I think once the younger kids see the trophies and the wins we are having, it will get them excited to be able to try to do that in the coming years,” said Thornton, who finished second in the pole vault behind teammate Kelly Glenn at counties and fourth at CALs. “We have a lot of good incoming freshmen (next year) and a lot of good freshmen now, so they will have something to look forward to for their senior year. I know in our senior year, it’s been really cool to win counties and the league. So they’ll have something to look forward to.”
The team is spearheaded by junior Alyssa Aldridge, one of the top distance runners in the country and a two-time Meet of Champions winner in cross country, but the Mustangs are much more than just a one-girl band. They have plenty of talent and depth, and that’s been on display during championship season in May. Along with a pair of wins, in the mile and two-mile, from Aldridge at CALs, the Mustangs also got a win in the 200 meters from Yvette Assongba, who also took third in the 100 and third in the 100 hurdles. The 4×100-meter team of Assongba, Ava Broux, Nicole Lombardo and Alyssa Nguyen won the league title, and Mainland also got solid finishes from Emily Forester (4th in 800), Emily Dirkes (3rd in 3,200), Kahirah Howard (6th in shot put), Lombardo (2nd in high jump), Courtney Campbell (10th in discus) and freshman Claire Pedrick, who took fourth in the 400 meters.
“We have a lot of star athletes we can count on to win first place, but I think what really carried the team this year was how strong our depth was. Those second- and third-place finishes are really what brought us to where we are today. It was a lot like the swimming team. Every point counts, every second, every inch,” said Campbell, who also was a big part of Mainland’s highly successful swimming team this past winter. “(Winning titles) is important to all the girls. Sometimes I feel like because I didn’t place at a meet that I didn’t contribute as much as I could have, but it balances itself out.”
And that’s been the overriding theme of this year’s Mainland girls track team — that every athlete matters, and every point helps the team reach its goals.
“Since the first day of practice, it’s been all about the team. Even if you feel like you are not doing well individually, you’re still benefitting the team,” said Zenovia Jackson, one of about a dozen seniors on the roster. “That’s something I like to think about when I’m not doing well in the shot put, I’m still a part of the team and this team still values me. We’re all a family.”
“The throwing events go on at the same time as the track events, but usually the high jump is last, so the whole team will go over and watch the high jump,” added Sydney Portock, another senior. “It’s kind of become a tradition, we’ll all go over as a team and watch the high jump. I think it’s really cool that we’re able to all watch at least one event as a team.”
Portock said she wasn’t surprised that the Mustangs won the county title, considering how well they had performed prior to that event, during the dual-meet season.
“The team has grown exponentially and I think we’re only going to get better each year. Especially the throwers, we have some really good younger kids on the team and I think in the next few years they will be great,” she said. “It’s been a long time since we won the county title. I wasn’t too surprised, though, because I have a lot of confidence in our team and I know we have a lot of great girls.”
“Our last race in the CAL American was against EHT, and that was our toughest meet. I also do cross country, too, and ever since Alyssa came to Mainland that’s gotten really big. I never thought track was that big until this year, when we started winning all this stuff,” said Forester, a senior distance runner. “We all know Alyssa is amazing and that we have some other stellar athletes, but especially for our whole team, we know every single one of the points counts. Even back in cross country, we learned that every single spot counts, so we kept saying those No. 2 and No. 3 spots were really important. We knew Alyssa could take the top spot, but we all had to work hard to go get those other spots and get those points. We’re kind of a team of little teams — the throwers do their thing, the distance runners are doing something else — but to come together to get team victories, like at counties, is so important. In the beginning, we didn’t expect this kind of success, but we began to see how well we could do if we all came together.”
Forester said the coolest thing about Mainland’s success is that now the girls are reading their own names in the paper, instead of having to just hear about athletes from Absegami, EHT or Ocean City.
“I remember when I was a freshman, I would see the names of people from Absegami or Ocean City (in the paper), and now we’re those people who people are looking up to,” she said. “It’s kind of a surreal feeling.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN