Running the show: Lions wreck NJAC foes

Paced by clutch performances from their top harriers, the men’s and women’s cross country teams maintained their stranglehold over the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) Friday, winning the 2008 NJAC Championship meets at Richard Stockton College in dominating fashion.

The men earned their 15th consecutive conference title and 20th overall. For the women, it was their 14th straight championship and 25th in league history.

Seniors Chris Guerriero and Martine McGrath set the tone in Friday’s romp, leading from wire-to-wire en route to individual gold. Travis Stewart, a senior from Rutgers University-Camden, was the only runner able to challenge the senior Lion, but Guerriero pulled away toward the end of the grueling 8-kilometer course, clocking a winning time of 24:39 to earn his third straight individual NJAC crown. Stewart ran a gutsy race, but finished second in 24:46.

“He was giving Guerriero a fight the entire time,” freshman Alex Yersak said. “Chris told me he was hanging on for dear life but (Guerriero) had more guts and kicked past the guy.”

The Lions sealed the victory by placing all five of their scorers in the top 10. Sophomore TJ Bocchino nabbed the bronze medal in 26:02, while freshman phenom Yersak continued his jaw-dropping rookie campaign, completing the course in 26:18 for sixth place. Senior Mike Fonder was a breath behind Yersak, touring the Stockton trails in 26:19 to claim seventh.

“The goal for the race was to get the job done, and the job was winning the race,” Bocchino said. “We knew we had the tools to run a successful race.”

Yersak and some of his teammates were annoyed with their times, as they veered off course nearly two or three miles into the race due to a misplaced marker. He said he and those around him wandered 100 meters off the trail and lost about 45 seconds redirecting themselves.

“But you can’t let it bother you. When we finally got back on course everyone caught up and we had to kick it up a notch,” Yersak said.

Sophomore Dennie Waite rounded out the Lions’ scorers, finishing ninth with a time of 26:30. Senior Josh Krowicki (22nd, 27:24) and junior Brandon Rodkewitz (24th, 27:43) were in reserve.

The men tallied 26 points to earn the title, while Rowan University edged out Ramapo University and Rutgers-Camden to slip into second with 63 points. The Ramapo Roadrunners finished third with 65, while the Scarlet Raptors fell all the way into fourth place with 68.

McGrath was pressed only by her teammates in the women’s 5-kilometer contest, finishing more than 30 seconds ahead of Rowan’s freshman sensation Jena Peacock (third, 22:31). The veteran Lion controlled the tempo of her race from start to finish, eventually shaking off teammate senior Stephanie Herrick to earn the gold in 21:57. Herrick settled for her third straight silver medal at the NJAC meet with a time of 22:24.

“It’s always tough running a race wire to wire, but I had a goal in mind and the beginning of the race and the motivation not to give up,” McGrath said.

The women placed four more harriers in the top 10. Behind McGrath and Herrick were juniors Michelle Wallace (fourth, 23:01) and Megan Donovan (sixth, 23:35). Freshman Katie Nestor followed her upperclass teammates closely over the course, taking seventh in a time of 23:55. Senior Justine Carnevale (10th, 24:02) and junior Nicole Ullmeyer (12th, 24:11) were in reserve.

Guerriero’s win marks the 13th consecutive year a Lion has walked into the winner’s circle at the men’s conference championship race. McGrath’s gold medal performance was also the 13th straight individual NJAC victory for the women’s squad.

The varsity Lions will take to the trails again on Nov. 15 at the Atlantic Regional at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.

James Queally can be reached at queally2@tcnj.edu.