Central Jersey Sectionals:
The sky was clear. The temperature was forty-six degrees. The stage was set. This was Manville's turn to shine.
After an incredible season of team victories and personal bests, the 2014 Manville cross country program had one final goal hovering in the horizon - placing in the top five at Sectionals. This achievement would earn Manville a trip to the Group 1 State Championship - its first ever in school history.
Only the strongest and most tenacious of teams qualify for Groups. It's one of the most prestigious and rare accomplishments a team can strive for. An achievement of this magnitude requires a full squad of hard-working, highly-talented, ready-for-war wildebeests. Small schools like Manville are lucky to have one runner of this caliber, let alone seven. For decades, the mere thought of Manville sending a team to Groups seemed unlikely - if not impossible.
Until this year.
Two years ago, Manville didn't even participate in the Sectionals Meet. The year before (in 2011), the Manville girls finished 9th at Sectionals, while the boys finished 12th. That year, the girls averaged 27:41, while the boys averaged 21:17. Back then, who would have guessed that a new generation of greatness was about to emerge?
When the 2014 season began, there were a lot of question marks. Who would step up and fill the top seven spots? How would the team adapt to a larger roster? During the off-season, Manville picked up several key runners. Most noteable were juniors Sarah Michitsch and Stephan Nash, sophomores Ashley Picado and Jonathan Ahorrio, and freshmen Kayla Molesko and Andrew Nash.
Returning for the Mustangs were seniors Gloria Yakobchuk, Erik Warren, and Matt Honkisz, as well as a whole group of talented juniors including Kate Bowden, Jenna Molesko, Ola Kaczor, and Vicky Wanjohi. The boys team was heavily supported by a core group of sophomores, commonly referred to as the "Dark Horse Six." Members of this group include Frankey Arevalo, Allen Cordero, Andrew Monterroso, Ricky Monterroso, and Jonathan Tran.
There was not a single four-year runner on the team. Most of the team consisted of first- or second-year runners. Yet, inexperienced as they were, these runners were destined for greatness. Their enthusiasm and eagerness propelled them to train hard at practice. Their desire to break records and chase goals pushed them to success. Likewise, their exceptional team chemistry kept them focused and excited for the races ahead.
Two days before Sectionals, the team held practice on a cold, rainy afternoon. School was closed for teacher conventions, and the top seven girls and top nine boys met at the canal path for a 30-minute run. It had rained all day long, but luckily there was a short break in the weather. It was just enough time to get in a speedy out-and-back progression run, which turned out to be the fastest practice run of the season. Jenna, Kate, and Sarah each ran a new PR for the 5k! A day earlier, the varsity team traveled to Thompson Park for a practice run an hour before the JV / Freshmen Meet started.
The Star-Ledger predicted Manville to finish in the top five at Sectionals. According to recent race results from the Greater Middlesex Conference Championship, a number of Group 1 schools including Metuchen, Dunellen, Highland Park, and South Amboy had already run fast times at Thompson Park. Shore Regional was the clear favorite in both the boys and girls races. South Hunterdon girls were a powerhouse team, which they proved numerous times throughout the season. It was going to take a full-team effort for Manville to claim a top-five spot in this highly-competitive race.
Senior Matt Honkisz ran 19:35 in the JV / Freshmen Meet just three days prior to Sectionals. His break-out performance was convincing enough to earn him a spot in the Sectionals line-up as a replacement for Jonathan Ahorrio, who was coming off a knee injury. Along with Honkisz, the Mustangs were represented by a talented cast of senior Erik Warren, junior Stephan Nash, sophomores Frankey Arevalo, Andrew Monterroso, and Ricky Monterroso, and freshman Andrew Nash.
Both Frankey Arevalo (18:33) and Erik Warren (18:40) had broken 19:00 at Natirar Park, while Honkisz and the Nash brothers each broke 19:00 at Duke Island Park in the team's final dual meet. On October 11th, the Manville boys competed in the XC Fall Classic at Thompson Park and averaged 19:56. This was run without the help of Stephan and Andrew Nash, who were on a sailing trip that weekend. Could they drop another 40 seconds when it came time for Sectionals?
By the second mile mark, Manville had moved up tremendously. Frankey and Erik were still passing people as the entered the woods. Stephan Nash had virtually teleported his way to the top portion of the race. Ricky was having the race of his life as he continued to search for Highland Park and Dunellen runners. The Manville spectators were spread all throughout the course demanding more from each runner who passed. Allen Cordero was yelling splits at Mile 2. Jon Tran and Matt Jimenez were circling around the course screaming words of encouragment.
At the crest of the final hill, Manville was in great position. Only a few straightaways remained. Frankey led the charge as he surged ahead toward the finish and finished in a Thompson Park best time of 18:56. He had done his part. Erik Warren refused to lose contact with Frankey and powered feverishly up the final hill. He was fully aware that this could be his last high school race ever. However, as he later remarked, he was pleased to know that only one runner from South Amboy was ahead of him. It was a good indication that Manville was doing well. Erik crossed the line in 19:00, which was a 19-second improvement from his previous Thompson Park best (set last year at Sectionals).
With his sprinter-speedster kick, Stephan Nash tore through the final section of the course. He knew what was at stake. Missing Groups by a half-second was not an option. His time of 19:07 was a huge contribution to the team. Not only was it his best performance of the season (excluding Duke Island Park), but he also recorded the 4th fastest time among all juniors in the race!
Perhaps the biggest surprised for Manville was Ricky Monterroso's 19:29 performance, which crushed his previous Thompson Park PR by more than 40 seconds. Ricky "The Rocket" had his best race on the perfect day. He was 4th man on the team and out-leaned Metuchen's Sam Sinclair at the finish line to ensure there was no regret. Last year, Ricky ran 21:09 at Sectionals, which means he dropped 1 minute and 40 seconds in that span of time.
Rounding out the 5th spot was Andrew Monterroso in a new personal best time of 19:40. Like his brother, Andrew made dramatic improvements since last year when he ran 21:10 at Sectionals. This is the second consecutive meet in which Andrew has run in the 19:40s, making him a very reliable runner for the team. On a side note, both he and Ricky beat their cousin Kingsley Anderson who finished 4th for Dunellen.
Andrew Nash made his Thompson Park debut with a sub 20:00 finish (19:52) and was the 8th fastest freshman in the race. Matt Honkisz completed his second sub 20:00 performance in four days and was the 2nd fastest 7th man of the meet! Matt's time of 19:55 gave Manville a full 7-man team of sub 20:00 performances. In fact, the entire team (from 1st to 7th runner) was separated by a mere 59 seconds. The top 5 were separated by only 45 seconds! That's the mark of a great pack team!
The Manville boys shocked the world with their 3rd place team showing. They beat highly-ranked South Amboy and pulverized Highland Park and Dunellen, both of which were ranked ahead of Manville prior to this race. It will forever be remembered as one of the proudest moments in school history as it was a colossal victory for Manville sports in general. And as the boys caught word of their achievement, the girls cross country team was getting situated on the starting line.
At the XC Fall Classic on October 11th, the Manville girls averaged 24:07 at Thompson Park. This was without Sarah Michitsch and Kayla Molesko. At the Skyland Conference Championship, the Manville girls averaged 23:27 at Natirar Park. This was without Ola Kaczor, but it was still the team's fastest performance of all-time. Earning a trip back to Holmdel Park would require a similar team effort.
All season long the girls team had been overlooked and unranked, but as the post-season drew near, their determination soared to a whole new level. Two days before Sectionals, the girls tested out their strength on the canal path with a four-mile progression-run that ended with a sub-7:20 last mile. Each runner knew the importance of Sectionals and what was at stake. Qualifying for Groups had never been done before. Everyone needed to run exceptionally well. It would take a full-team effort to pull this off. Luckily for Manville, the girls team was nothing short of an all-star line-up.
The Team: Fourteen Runners, One Objective
The Boys Race: No Room for Regret
The Preparation: Getting Ready for the Ultimate Showdown
When the starting pistol fired at 10:25 AM, the herd of Group 1 boys pounded down the first straightaway. New Egypt's senior Jonathan Mitchell took the lead with a blistering 5:09 first mile. He would pay for this later, as a pack of patient runners caught him in the final mile of the course. The Manville boys, led by Frankey Arevalo and Erik Warren, were in a fairly tight pack as they settled into a good rhythm for the first loop. Coming in at 5:47, Frankey crossed the 1st mile mark with a smooth, yet commanding stride. Erik was a second or two behind him. Ricky Monterroso and Stephan Nash cruised past in 6:05, proving once and for all that smart, conservative racing beats senseless surging any day. Not far behind were Andrew Nash and Andrew Monterroso, followed closely by Matt Honkisz.