Team of the Year
The Wilberforce School only began girls cross-country in 2018 but in the four short years since, the Wolverines have grown into a formidable power. Having won an NJSIAA Non-Public B championship in 2021, Wilberforce returned to Holmdel this fall and repeated the feat, winning back-to-back state group crowns.
Along the way, Wilberforce racked up a series of impressive wins, finishing first as a team in five different events, including the Mercer County Championship. In spite of having a high school enrollment of only 100 students, the Wolverines finished in 11th place as a team at the Meet of Champions, ahead of all other area teams.
For those reasons, The Wilberforce School is the Trenton Times Girls Cross-Country Team of the Year for 2022.
“It serves a smaller school well because you only need five really good people,” Wilberforce coach Lois Szeliga said of her school’s attachment to cross-country. “Still, it’s very hard to do with the competition in the capitol area and in the state of New Jersey. It came together very quickly to have five girls who could compete and finish close together. It took the girls by surprise (last year) but they had their sights set on this year and the goals were different from the year before. It worked out and we had a great team again.
“With 100 kids in the high school, it’s a big deal,” Szeliga said of the reception her runners receive when they are back in class. “We have a pep rally before the state meet and a slide show. We have our trophy case. They do make a big deal about the boys and the girls. There is a big culture around it in the school, with the families and the parents. It brings a lot of joy to all of us and it really is a lot of fun.”
Wilberforce got the fun started this fall at Robbinsville’s Night at the Nest Invitational when it won the title by finishing ahead of the host Ravens 82-91. The Wolverines’ highest finisher was Adeline Edwards, who finished eight. But they established a pattern that would be evident throughout the rest of the season as several other runners followed in quick succession.
Sophia Park was right behind in ninth place while Gwen Mersereau was 19th, Lasura Sallade was 22nd and Abigail Readlinger and Virginia Whitman were 34th and 54th, respectively.
A month later, Wilberforce would win the Mercer County Championship, holding off runner-up West Windsor-Plainsboro South, Lawrenceville, Allentown and Princeton.
“Mercer County is all the top teams that are phenomenal,” Szeliga said of her team’s county meet victory. “All the private and public schools with the top talent year after year. Our entire team knows what that means to win the county meet for a school our size. It was huge for our program.”
Two weeks later, Wilberforce would repeat as group state champions, knocking off favored Villa Walsh. Once again, it was a tight grouping of Wilberforce runners that turned the trick as Edwards led the way in fifth place in 20:23, followed by Park in seventh, Sallade in ninth, Mersereau in 11th and Readlinger in 16th. Whitman at 23rd and Vardeman at 35th closed out the Wolverines’ scoring.
“This year we thought we would be more the favorites but Villa Walsh, with the big season they had, were the favorites all year,” Szeliga said of the challenge at the state group meet. “They put pressure on themselves but I’m proud of the way they handled that. It never felt like it was a heavy thing to them to be the reigning state champs. They had fun with it and were confident.”
A week later, Wilberforce would return to Holmdel and turn in an impressive perofrmance in the Meet of Champions by taking 11th place among the best teams in the state.
“That is legit, right?” Szeliga asked of the finish. “We were never ranked all year long but we never had the head to head competition until Holmdel. It didn’t come as a surprise to me as our team has always performed very well. But it was nice to see it in black and white and earn that against the best teams in the state.”
Szeliga, herself a former Rutgers cross-country captain, who also ran the 800 and 1,500 meters in the indoor and spring seasons, knows that this watershed season was built on a foundation of hard work. But she tries to make sure that her runners can enjoy the same experience she had during her competitive days.
“They worked really hard this summer and came in wanting to compete and live up to what they did the year before,” she said of her team. “They wanted to be a championship team. It builds on itself
in school and how they run for each other. If someone doesn’t have a great day, someone takes their spot. Everybody knows that in cross-country it is small margins for the most part. What most impressed me about this team, this year, is how they all fought so hard in each race to beat that last person. Anyone that was in within reach, they wanted to win. We won by slim margins and each runner made a difference.
“There is a lot of talent on this team. They want to do it for each other, they embrace the hard work and they love cross-country. I’m always trying to talk to them as an old woman who ran cross-country. Those days were so joyful, special and rare and I want them to experience what I experienced and all the joy it brought into my life. It teaches a lot about life and faith and endurance. It can be painful but it makes you stronger. They don’t see it as a negative, whether it is a setback or an injury. I really see the girls buying into that.”