Liam Murphy always wanted to win the NJSIAA Meet of Champions in the 3,200-meter run.
The Allentown High School junior just never thought it would actually happen.
But on Feb. 23 at the John Bennett Indoor Athletic Complex in Toms River, Murphy achieved his dream. He won the 3,200-meter championship at the Meet of Champions.
Except, he didn’t just win a state title. Murphy also accomplished something he never even dreamed about when he became the fastest runner in America.
Murphy’s winning time of 8:54.22 set a national mark for the winter of 2019. It was also the fastest time in the 51-year history of the Meet of Champions.
“It was so crazy,” Murphy said.
“It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen an athlete do,” said Allentown coach Rick Smith.
Going into the race, Murphy was David and Devin Hart was Goliath. Hart, a senior at Point Pleasant Borough High School, is one of the best runners in the country.
He is a multiple time state champion in various track events. He is also committed to run for Stanford University starting next year.
The Allentown junior usually likes to pace himself and make his move at the end. But Murphy, Smith and Murphy’s father, Tom, knew that if Murphy tried that against Hart, the Point Pleasant Borough star would leave him in the dust.
Instead, Murphy would have to run with Hart to give himself a chance at the end.
“I’m not used to going out that fast,” Murphy said. “But then I just fell into a zone.”
David stayed with Goliath for the first 13 laps and passed him on the 14th. But Hart was never going to break that easily. He sped up and passed Murphy. Then Murphy took the lead back “for a split second,” he said.
At this point, Hart “let it rip,” Smith said, and zipped by Murphy yet again.
At Liam’s races, Tom Murphy stands at the last bend before the home stretch. As Hart and Murphy reached the final bend, Hart only led by a step or two.
Tom Murphy realized their strategy had worked.
“I thought, ‘There’s a chance,'” he said.
Then, Liam Murphy did what he does best: he kicked. Only this time, he out-kicked the best runner in New Jersey.
“That was his mantra all week,” Smith said. “Out-kick Hart.”
With the crowd roaring, Murphy sprinted past Hart and beat him to the finish line by a step. The crowd was so big that Tom Murphy couldn’t see the finish. But he knew that Liam won by the crowd’s reaction.
“Everybody went bananas. Everybody loves an underdog,” Tom Murphy said. “People we didn’t even know were congratulating us.”
“I’ve never heard a place that loud,” Smith added.
Hart finished in 8:54.45, so he lost to Murphy by 0:00.23. His time was the third fastest 3,200-meter time in New Jersey history. (Murphy’s time was the second.)
Edward Cheserek, an All-America runner during his days at Saint Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, still holds the fastest 3,200 time in state history at 8:39.25. Cheserek graduated from high school in 2013.
Hart’s time during his runner-up finish in the Meet of Champions was also the second fastest 3,200-meter time in the nation this winter.
Hart didn’t lose this year’s epic race. Murphy won it.
Amidst the pandemonium, Hart found Murphy and shook his hand.
“He said, ‘Great race, man,'” Murphy said.
On Feb. 15 in Toms River, Murphy won the NJSIAA Group 3 championship with a time of 9:14.93. He shaved more than 20 seconds off his time in the Meet of Champions.
Smith always knew Murphy could reach this level.
“Now he’s No. 1 in the country,” Smith said. “There’s no denying it.”
The junior just had to grow to believe it himself.
“I crossed the line and my friends came over and told me I got a sub nine,” Murphy said. “I didn’t believe it.”
A few days later, Smith brought his standout back to reality.
“I told him, ‘You can’t be a one hit wonder,'” the coach said.
Murphy will race in the New Balance Nationals Indoor meet in New York City on March 8.
Since he is now the fastest 3,200-meter runner in the country, Murphy should enter as a Goliath, not a David. But he will still use the same strategy that won him the Meet of Champions.
“I’ll try to be in contention to win,” Murphy said.