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New Jersey Report

Nick Vena's 57-footers smash frosh shot mark

January 3, 2008

By Ed Grant

Familiar names like distance runners Jillian Smith and Doug Smith, sprinters English Gardner and Ogechi Nwaneri, pole vaulters Greg Stripe and Chrissy Finkel, and shot-putters Mike Alleman and DeAnne Hahn were prominent in the first two weeks of indoor action in New Jersey. But it was 14-year-old Nicholas Vena who became the talk of the town when he broke the state freshman mark by five feet with three 57-foot-plus performances at the annual holiday series of meets at Drew University in Madison.

A southpaw spinner, Vena has obviously had some expert coaching before entering Morristown High School, having a 62-02.50 mark with the 4K shot as an eighth-grader last year. His father was a 50-plus thrower a generation ago at West Essex High School, a period when New Jersey was producing two or three 60-footers annually.

Vena has already had three engagements with Alleman, who was the state and Eastern States indoor champion last winter, and has predictably finished second on each occasion. Mike, a senior at Scotch Plains, finally broke the 60-foot barrier in the Dec. 28 at the Drew Invitational, hitting 61-05.75, and then added four inches at the Pietrewicz Invitational on Jan. 2. Vena had marks of 57-04.50 and 57-02.50 on those two occasions.

Vena’s emergence came at a good time since Alleman’s projected rival, Pat Park of Toms River South, is taking off the winter due to repairs for a minor injury incurred in football. Park had handed Mike his only defeat in a New Jersey meet last spring at the all-group championships.

Hahn, a Brick senior, has had just one open meet to date and it was a good one as she came within a few inches of her indoor PR, hitting 46-10 at the Dec. 28 Merli Invitational. She needed every inch of this as Maureen Laffan of nearby Toms River North improved her indoor PR by three inches at 45-11. The event has had a fast start this winter with six girls already over 40-0.

The two unrelated Smiths have also had a single outing. Doug, a junior at Gill-St. Bernard’s, showed that he is fully recovered from the illness that cost him a Foot Locker Finals slot as he coasted to a 9:35.5 win in the 3200 at the Dec. 26 Somerset County meet. Jillian, a junior at Southern Ocean, doubled the 400 and 1600 in 57.94 and 5:05.23 at the Merli meet, which was revived this year after being held at the Red Bank field house during the latter years of the 20th century.

Stripe, a senior at Mahwah, was one of five boys to top 14-0 in December meets, a record for New Jersey, which affords little opportunity for competition in the vault. He got his mark at the Dec. 19 Spiked Shoe Holiday Festival at the New York Armory Center and added a 6.6 win for good measure. Toms River saw its pair of Greg Kelley and Rich Villanova top 14-0 at the Merli meet, while Matt Ksiezopolski of Hillsboro matched this in the Somerset meet and junior Eddie Zubrzycki of Highland did it in the open division of the Olympic Conference meet on Dec. 22 at Toms River.

Nwaneri, the Chatham senior who was hampered last year by a thigh injury after dominating the girls’ sprint scene as a frosh and soph, showed she is back in form when she won the 55M in 6.99 at the Dec. 15 Bishop Loughlin Invitational at the New York Armory. Gardner, the Eastern soph who swept sprint honors in the state last year, had a 7.19 in the Olympic Conference meet. Sophomore Dominique Booker of Immaculate Conception of Montclair, promises to be a third force in the sprints with a 7.08 behind Nwaneri in the Loughlin meet, a 39.94 in the 300M there and a pair of subsequent 55-200 doubles at the Spiked Shoe meet and the Holiday Relay Classic on Dec. 27 at the Jersey City Armory.

Two other New Jersey winners at the Loughlin meet were Robby Andrews of Manalapan who took the 1K in 2:30.52, 11th fastest in state history, and Devon Hill of Trenton in the 55H in 7.48. (He subsequently defeated his main rival, Gerkins Senesca of Roselle, at the Dec. 27 Seton Hall Invitational in 7.52.) Andrews, an all-state selection in cross-country, is in his first indoor season after giving up his NBA ambitions, while Hill who also won the Seton Hall 400, will end his track career in March as he plays baseball in the spring and will concentrate on football at Oklahoma.

The top girl 55-meter hurdlers in early meets have been Samantha Sharper of Wilson and soph Briana Barlow of New Brunswick, who ran 2nd and 5th in 8.26 and 8.33 at Loughlin.

Junior Ariann Neutts of Roxbury, who went back to soccer last fall, has shown she has lost none of her track talent. She ran 1:39.42 in the 600M at the Dec. 20 O’Leary Lid-Lifter at Drew, and then joined Ashley Cromartie and Lauren Penney as Roxbury dominated the Dec. 22 Gardiner Relays there with four wins, including a probable Penn qualifier of 12:33.07 in the DMR. Neutts anchored a 4:28.07 SMR win with a sub-2:18 800 leg.

Senior Lindsey Walsh of the powerful Lenape team has shown great all-around potential in early meets with a 5-6 in the high jump at Dec. 14 Bailey Invitational in Jersey City, an 8.64 in the 55H and several sub-1:00 anchor legs in the 1600R. The state’s other pentathlon star, Josefine Kvist of Ridge, scored in four events at the Somerset meet and has run 43.38 for 300M and 1:42.91 for 600M at Drew.

Early relay action has been highlighted, as usual, by the Millrose 1600R trials, held on Jan. 2 at Seton Hall. Camden led the qualifiers for both Suburban relay races there, the boys running 3:27.1 and the girls 3:59.0. Union Catholic made the boys’ field for the first time in 3:29.6 with Garrett Ellis hitting 50.0 on the third leg, while Wilson joined its city rival with a 4:04.4 in the girls’ event.

There will also be Suburban 3200R races at Millrose this year, with the New Jersey pair being selected on the basis of performances in open competition. Millville put itself very much in the picture when its all-underclass team won the event at the Marine Corps Holiday Classic on Dec. 17 in 9:34.49 at the New York Armory, while Lenape and Roxbury are in the running for the other spot. Hillsboro, with an 8:07.0 at the Spiked Shoe Holiday Festival, and Hunterdon Central head the boys’ list, but the snow-wipeout of the New Jersey Catholic Track Conference Passarelli Relays at West Point on Dec. 16 means that the state’s top two cross-country schools this year, Don Bosco and Christian Brothers, have still to be heard from. This could be remedied at the NJCTC indoor relay championships Jan. 6 at the New York Armory.

Trenton had a swift 30.47 shuttle hurdles race at the Seton Hall meet, but lost it when Hill lined up on the “break” line instead of the starting line for the anchor leg. Irvington won the event that day at the Marine Corp meet in 31.23. The girls’ event has been sizzling with inconclusive early meetings among the state’s top three teams, Randolph edging Lenape in 33.3 at the Bailey meet, then splitting a pair of Dew meeting with Union in similar times, while Lenape, with Walsh anchoring, was winning at Seton Hall in 33.7.