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Ridge, RBC, IHA and Randolph among contenders in wide open team battle

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

Rich Bevensee

Last season, Voorhees of Glen Gardner left nothing to chance in winning the school’s second state title. How dominant was Voorhees? It broke the Holmdel Park course record for five-runner average two straight weeks.
There is no such juggernaut in the field this year, only several strong contenders for the 37th NJSIAA Meet of Champions, slated for Saturday at Holmdel. The girls’ race starts at 10:45 a.m.
If a team must be labeled as a favorite, there are two possibilities.
Ridge of Basking Ridge has been one of the best teams in the state all season, and this week it took over the No. 1 ranking in The Star-Ledger Top 20.
Ridge placed second the last four years in the state Group 3 race, but in its first year as a Group 4 school, won the state title for the first time since it won the Group 2 crown in 1987.
Ironically, that year happens to be the year before current head coach Tim Mooney joined the program as an assistant.
In the Group 4 race, Ridge posted a five-runner spread of 1:57 and the third-best five-runner average (20:06.6) from the group meet.
``We’ve been thinking about the Meet of Champs all year,’’ Ridge senior Dana Guglielmo said. ``We haven’t dwelled on it because we had a lot of big races this year and we were just thinking about each race. After winning state, we’re really excited about what we can do now (at the M of C).’’
No. 2 Immaculate Heart of Washington Township, quite unlike Ridge, wasn’t sure what it had this season until a key member of the team returned to the fold this week. The result was the most heartwarming storyline of the entire meet.
When the Immaculate Heart team bus pulled into the Holmdel parking lot for the group meet, coach Mark Ledgerwood didn’t know if senior and No. 2 runner Mary Kaye Duff would be ready to go. She had missed more than a month of training and racing due to hypoglycemia problems, as well as back pain stemming from a cyst removal.
Duff’s last taste of action was Oct. 11, in the Eastern States Championship race at the Manhattan Invitational at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.
Following a long and ginger warmup, Duff said she was ready, and Immaculate Heart proceeded to make school history, winning its first Non-Public A state title with a 60-67 victory over runner-up and No. 3 Red Bank Catholic.
Immaculate Heart charted the group meet’s second-fastest five-runner average (20:05.2, behind only Voorhees’ 19:48.4) and a five-runner spread of 1:28.
Now that Duff, 21st last week in 20:39, is back, Ledgerwood believes his team has what it takes to an M of C crown.
``Forget the state title, forget the Meet of Champs. She’s just happy to be back out there running,’’ Ledgerwood said. ``She knows that without her we never would have won. A lot of people have asked me if I think we can win if she can run better, and I tell them that everyone has to run better. The girls know what’s at stake, and seeing her out there (at the group meet) gutting it out have made them want the title even more.’’
Also contending for the title are No. 3 Red Bank Catholic, No. 4 Voorhees, No. 5 Randolph and No. 6 Haddonfield.
Red Bank Catholic, which only lost to Immaculate Heart by seven points, is making its state-record 16th straight appearance in the M of C.
Voorhees has the confidence that goes with being the defending champion, but its fourth and fifth runners must get much closer to the first three in order for coach Justina Cassavell’s squad to repeat.
Randolph is enjoying its most fruitful season in nine years and knows it can contend based on the Group 4 standings, which shows it bowed to Ridge by just 10 points, 108-118.
Haddonfield moved to the No. 1 spot in The Star-Ledger poll in the second week of October and stayed there until last week, when it won the state Group 2 title for the fourth straight season but with a pedestrian five-runner average of 20:32, ninth fastest at the group meet. But Haddonfield's chances of  contending for the team title took a big hit when Marielle Hall, the 2007 Group 2 champion, suffered an ankle injury during last week's race. She will not run on Saturday.

This is the 27th straight year that coach Tom Heath is bringing a Christian Brothers Academy team to the Meet of Champions. Over its last 26 appearances, CBA has finished in the top five every year and has won a state record 15 titles.

The Cherokee boys are also riding a remarkable streak into the M of C. Coach Steve Shaklee has left the M of C 11 straight years with his Cherokee team placing in the top nine every time.

Red Bank Catholic will be running in the girls M of C race for the 16th straight year. RBC owns the girls' state record with eight M of C titles.

This marks the 30th anniversary of the current 3.1-mile Holmdel Park course, which began use in 1979. In 1978, the famous bowl portion of the course was run in the opposite direction.