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Udland favored in loaded field featuring four runners that have broken 15:45 at Holmdel

Saturday, November 22, 2008 - Holmdel Park, Holmdel NJ

Jim Lambert

When Tyler Udland staged his dramatic comeback to win the 3,200-meter run at the Meet of Champions last June, he was hoping that breakthrough would serve as springboard to a big cross-country season.

It sure did.

Udland, now a junior at Millburn, is the hottest runner in the state right now and has emerged as the favorite heading into Saturday’s 37th Meet of Champions race at Holmdel Park.

It was obvious after he rallied from a 50-meter deficit on the final lap to catch Doug Smith of Gill St. Bernard’s right before the line to win the M of C 3,200, that Udland was a star on the rise.

``That gave me a lot of confidence that I could run with the best runners,’’ said Udland, who edged Smith, 9:04.83 to 9:05.70.

Now it’s the rest of the state that’s hoping it can catch up with Udland.

Udland earned the label as the favorite in this race after his memorable triumph in Group 3 last Sunday when he ran 15:36, No. 7 in course history, to defeat Brett Johnson, a senior at Ocean City (15:41), and sophomore Joe Rosa of West Windsor-Plainsboro North (15:51).

But Udland knows he’ll probably have to run even faster to be crowned New Jersey’s best in a race featuring a meet record four runners that have broke15:45 at Holmdel. The Holmdel records of four sub 15:50 runners (2006) and eight sub 16:00 runners (2003) are likely to be challenged.

``Last week’s race gave me lots of confidence, but I know there are a few guys that can win this and it’s going to be a very tough race to win,’’ said Udland. ``I can see the winning time possibly dipping under 15:30 with lots of guys running real fast. There are just so many great runners in New Jersey that’s it’s scary.’’

When Udland ran 15:36 last Sunday, the conditions were very windy and the first two miles were run in 5:15 and 5:09.

The forecast for Saturday is cold (low 30’s) with very little wind.

``I can see the race going out harder, in the 5:10 range and maybe close to 5:08, and a few guys being pretty close together at two miles,'' said Udland. `` From there, it will be all guts to the finish.’’

Udland, who has set course records this season at hilly Lewis Morris Park (16:11) in Morris Township, and at Brookdale Park in Bloomfield (14:58), showed last Sunday that he’s more than just a runner that relies on endurance.

Udland led through two miles in 10:24 with Rosa a few strides behind. After Rosa started to drop back a bit around the tennis courts, it appeared as though Udland had the victory locked up. But Johnson, a 4:08 miler who won the M of C 1,600 last spring, wasn’t about to give up his title without a fight. Trailing Udland by seven seconds with a half mile left, Johnson mounted a furious comeback and got on Udland’s heels with 300 meters left.

``I thought it was Rosa,’’ said Udland. ``I couldn’t believe it was Johnson. I knew I had to pick it up and I was able to find that next gear''.

Udland is expecting Johnson to try to stay in better contact this time.

``If he’s closer this week, he’ll be real dangerous because he just chews up so much ground on those downhills,’’ said Udland.

Udland is hoping the presence of Smith, who likes to press the issue up front, will result in a fast early pace.

``I think the faster it is the more it will help me because Johnson might be a little further back and have to use so much to catch back up,’’ said Udland.

Udland is now 2-1 vs. Johnson this season. At the Shore Coaches Invitational at Holmdel on Oct. 4, Johnson came out of the bowl first and led the rest of the way, crossing in 15:44 with Udland second in 15:48. Udland evened the score at the Manhattan Invitational the following week at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.

``That was still early in the season,’’ Udland said of the Shore Coaches meet. ``I’ve gotten much stronger since then,’’

Udland said that although Johnson presents a major challenge, he knows there are other runners he needs to be concerned with.

``Rosa just kind of died in that last mile last week, but I’m confident he’ll bounce back with a big race, and you can never count out Doug Smith,’’ said Udland. ``I’m sure he wants to win this pretty bad and will be right up there.’’

Rosa was undefeated prior to his loss in Group 3 and ran a sophomore course record 15:38 at the Shore Coaches meet at Holmdel.

Smith, who won his third straight Non-Public B title last week in 16:13, hasn’t run as fast at Holmdel this season as the top runners in this race, but owns a 15:44 at Holmdel from last year.

Udland said he’s also well aware of the presence of Group 4 champion Robby Andrews of Manalapan. Andrews overcame a 40 meter deficit to win Group 4 in 16:10.

``He’s a complete wild card in all this,’’ said Udland. ``That guy is scary the way he can finish a race. If he is around at the end, he’ll be very tough.’’

Udland is expecting the race to come down to the final mile.

``There is a good chance that no matter what the pace is, if I’m in the lead there will be someone there with me going into that last mile,’’ Udland said. ``I’ll have to be at my best to win and I’m really excited about this race. To have so many great guys racing eachother should make for a great race. I can’t wait.’’