UC Girls Pull Off Stunning Victory at MOC. Boys Place 2nd.
There just didn’t seem like there was any way that the Union Catholic girls could win the Meet of Champions title after its No. 1 runner was knocked out of the lineup with an injury. That’s just too much to overcome against the best teams in the state.
But that’s not the way No. 2 ranked Union Catholic was thinking.
Instead, UC was fueled by its sudden underdog role and was determined to prove everyone wrong.
And that’s exactly what happened as the Vikings scored one of the more improbable victories in the 50-year history of the NJSIAA Meet of Champions at Holmdel Park on Saturday when the Vikings pulled out a thrilling 79-88 upset victory over heavily favored and No. 1 ranked Haddonfield.
This is the first M of C girls title for Union Catholic, and the first girls title ever for a team from Union County.
Individually, Freehold Township junior Emma Zawatski simply owned the race.
Zawatski, 12th last year, used a hard charge on the way into the bowl to break away from the field and she ran unchallenged the rest of the way en route to victory in 18:38. She’s the first runner from Freehold Township (boys or girls) to win an XC M of C title. (See down below for more on Zawatski’s victory).
AGAINST ALL ODDS
When Union Catholic star junior Peyton Hollis had to drop out of the Non-Public A race last week with a season-ending leg injury, the odds were stacked against UC and the scales were tipped in Haddonfield’s favor heading into this highly anticipated showdown.
All the times, the average, and the team merges from the Group Championships favored Haddonfield. At the Group meet, Haddonfield averaged 19:36 and had a 1-5 spread of 19 seconds on its way to the Group 2 title. Union Catholic averaged 20:09, and had a spread of 1:45 when it won the Non-Public A Championship. Haddonfield finished on top in the team merge, 93.5-246 over UC.
But one thing that can’t be measured or calculated is resiliency, intestinal fortitude, heart, grit, and motivation. All of those things mixed together ignited Union Catholic to its heart-pounding nine-point victory.
So how exactly did it all come together for UC?
Union Catholic received great races from the 1-2 punch of senior Kaleigh Gunsiorowski and junior Courtney Kaiser, a career best race and clutch performance from surging junior Leilani Gibson, and strong runs from talented freshmen Emmy O’Hearn, and Ella Solorzano.
Gunsiorowski, fourth in 18:57, and Kaiser, 14th in 19:25, both finished ahead of Haddonfield’s No. 1 runner. Gibson, a huge key to the victory, dropped a massive Holmdel PR bomba of 19:45 to place 24th, one spot ahead of Haddonfield’s No. 3 runner. O’Hearn finished 52nd in 20:18, also one place in front of Haddonfield’s No. 4 runner, and Solarzano was 78th in 20:36, just two places behind Haddonfield’s No. 5.
Union Catholic’s went 4-9-12-22-32 in the team scoring and averaged 19:48. Haddonfield, which wasn’t able to keep its usual tight pack connected like it did at the Sectionals and Group Championships, went 10-11-13-23-31 and averaged 19:56. Haddonfield’s 1-5 split was 1:05.
With its victory coupled with the Union Catholic boys winning its first M of C title last year, UC became just the third school to ever win both a boys and girls M of C title. Bernards and North Hunterdon are the other two. Bernards swept the boys and girls titles in 1982, and the boys also won in 1981 and 1985. North Hunterdon swept the titles in 1983, and has captured a state-record tying nine girls titles.
UC Coach Mike McCabe knew winning without Hollis was a long shot, but he never felt they had no shot.
“I told the team that we’re the underdog, and it will be tough to win,” said McCabe. “And if we run our best, we will be proud regardless of the outcome. But we had a plan, and I thought if we could execute it, we had a shot to win. It was a tough loss (losing Hollis), but we told our girls we had two girls we could put in front of their one and we thought if we could mix it up with their five, we might have a chance and our three and four beat theirs and our five just lost to their. I’m just so proud of them.”
McCabe praised how his team rose to the challenge in the face of adversity.
“Last week was a tough week of racing for our girls,” said McCabe. “I am extremely proud of how they bounced back. Their response to last week and resiliency as a team is what stands out the most.”
Gunsiorowski said that being the underdog took a lot of pressure off the team.
“We knew that since we were now the underdogs we could go out and have fun, and run without any pressure ” said Gunsiorowski. “We all ran our hardest and believed in each other.”
Hollis, who was undefeated in her first season of XC before the injury, wasn’t surprised that her teammates proved everyone wrong.
“I knew they could still do it, and I couldn’t be happier,” said Hollis, who is the ultimate team first athlete. “It’s bittersweet because I obviously wish I could have been out there running with my team, but I knew if they ran with their hearts they could win. All the girls on the team have worked so hard for this for so long, and I’m so proud of them for the way they all ran for each other to win this.”
BOYS PLACE SECOND
In the boys race, defending champion UC, ranked No. 2 in the state, ran a great race to place second to No. 1 ranked Christian Brothers Academy, 44-98.
The Vikings, who averaged 16:31.8, were led by senior Ryan Cichocki, 13th in 16:06, and junior Alex Saldana, 16th in 16:17. Freshman Evan Weber was 28th in 16:34, senior Caudell Cajuste finished 39th in 16:43, junior Alessandro Alvarez-Tullo was 64th in 16:59, sophomore Michael Devine finished 74th in 17:05, and junior Sean Wilson was 22nd in 17:57.