By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
By winning the NJSIAA Meet of Champions last fall as a sophomore, then holding her own against the country’s best at a national meet in San Diego, Alyssa Aldridge helped put Mainland Regional girls cross country on the map. Now, her teammates are making sure the Mustangs stay there.
At Holmdel Park in November, cross country is very much an individual sport. But until then, it’s a team sport, and Mainland went out this fall and proved that it is much more than a one-girl show. The Stangs (8-0) dethroned powerful Ocean City as champion of the Cape-Atlantic League’s American Conference by scoring a one-point win over the Red Raiders in September, proving they have the depth to be a team opponents should be worried about in late October.
Emily Dirkes, just a sophomore, had an outstanding freshman year last year, scoring a top-5 finish at the Cape-Atlantic League meet at the New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville. She’s been posting solid times along with seniors Emily Forester and Kelly Glenn, and junior Grace Kennedy.
“Our season has been going great. We knew we had a strong team going into this season, but we didn’t expect to have all this success. We haven’t beaten Ocean City since 1998, so it’s been pretty crazy. It’s almost been hard to believe,” Forester said. “It’s been nice having a larger team, and we really stepped it up in our summer workouts. We worked really hard to focus on speed as well as distance, and worked hard to increase our mileage.”
Coach Brian Smith has 18 runners this year, including a group of freshmen who have been trying to get into the top seven. Gabby Boggs, a junior and star on the basketball team, has emerged as a solid No. 6 runner, and freshman Angie Stefanowicz has been impressive, Smith said.
“She’s not just a basketball player,” Smith said of Boggs. “She’s using this cross country season to propel her into basketball. It’s not her No. 1 sport, but she’s worked so hard and the effort is paying off. It’s not enough just to have a No. 5, you need to have a No. 6 and No. 7 to push those other girls.”
Smith said he has really been impressed with the effort Forester and Glenn have turned in so far this fall, as well as Dirkes, who on any other team would be a clear-cut No. 1 scorer.
“Dirkes has been running in the shadow of Alyssa, but she’s starting to make a name for herself because she’s one of the best runners in South Jersey. She finished third at CALs last year and was only about 10 seconds behind Alexa Weber (of Ocean City). And Forester and Glenn have been a solid 3-4 all year long. These are the kinds of girls you need. Alyssa is one of the best runners in the country, so she’s going to dominate all the headlines in the newspapers, but you need to have those three, four and five runners if you’re going to have a solid team. They often go under-appreciated, except by their coaches. Forester has been such an outstanding leader and worker her entire four years and she’s as strong now as she’s ever been,” Smith said. “Kelly had an outstanding freshman year, but the last two years she’s been battling some asthma issues. But to her credit, she stuck with it and she rebounded. She’s had a tremendous year, and I’m thrilled for her because she’s battled and now she’s finally feeling as good as she did when she was a freshman.”
“Our top six or seven have been really strong. We really push each other because we know where we need to be. Grace is new this year, she came from field hockey, and she’s been a key runner on our team,” Forester said. “We’re feeling pretty good right now, and especially with having beaten Ocean City and EHT this year, we’re feeling good going into counties and CALs. A lot of our workouts are geared toward sectionals, too. If we can get some of our girls in the top five we might have a shot at first place.”
Kennedy is another runner who has opened some eyes, since she switched from field hockey.
“Grace was a goalie on the field hockey team, but she ran track last spring and we convinced her to make the switch. She’s kind of been the unsung hero of this team, because in cross country you need that fifth runner. If you don’t have a solid fifth runner, it doesn’t matter what the other four do. She’s been a revelation for us. She has made the transition from field hockey to cross country seamlessly,” Smith said. “She hasn’t complained one bit, and cross country is a hard sport. You have to deal with a lot of injuries and adversity, and she’s been solid from the start. She put us in a position to be able to win the Cape-Atlantic League. Last year, we lost the county meet by one point, so having Kelly and Grace step up has made all the difference.”
Smith and Forester said there hasn’t been any resentment about Aldridge grabbing all the headlines. Most of that is due to the way Aldridge carries herself. She might be the most humble runner in the state.
“The best thing about Alyssa is that she’s such a good role model, not just in her running, but with her modesty, too. She’s such a nice person and we’re never jealous of her,” Forester said. “We’re never jealous of each other, and that’s a great thing to have on a team. Sometimes it’s hard to compete with Alyssa, but I think with our success this season we’ve been getting a lot of credit for the whole team. But whatever we do, we know it’s more for ourselves and not for recognition anyway.”
“There is no resentment whatsoever, and that’s a tribute to Alyssa. She works harder than anyone and she’s so unassuming. She has no ego, and all the girls just love her,” Smith added. “They see what she puts into it. She’s an inspiration to the other girls, and they want to support her and that drives them as well. We have a cast of runners who have developed to support Alyssa, and they want to bring team championships to Mainland.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN