Tucker Zullo, Jackson McCarthy and the Princeton High boys’ cross-country team are a perfect example of proving you don’t have to finish first to consider your performance a success.
The Little Tigers placed 13th as a team at the Meet of Champions state race last Saturday at Holmdel Park. McCarthy finished 24th, covering the course in 16 minutes, 27 seconds, while Zullo came home in 31st, finishing in 16:30.
“I was very happy,” Zullo said after the race. “I told myself at the beginning of the season, I wanted to break 16:30 at Holmdel and that’s what I did today. I could not be more happy. And my training partner for four years was right there with me. This whole season we have been working off each other and trying to get better individually and as a team.
“We talked about this on the bus ride down here that we’ve all had great races but not at the same time. One would have a great race and the other would have a mediocre race. Today, Jackson and I really had pretty good races and I could not ask for anything more. I am really happy.”
Tyler Fu finished 78th in 17:08, while Nick Trenholm (143rd in 17:57) and Jacob Bornstein (155th in 18:15) rounded out the top five for the Little Tigers. For McCarthy and Zullo, running well in their final Meet of Champions made for a great conclusion to their careers.
“They worked incredibly hard and not just this season,” Princeton coach Jim Smirk said. “I think this was the culmination of a long time for them. They had great mentorship with the guys above them over the years. I think they took full advantage of that and really are an impressive credit to this program.
“It’s funny because you’re always trying to put together that race where you have that kind of connectedness to allow it to happen. These guys have been great friends since like first grade or something like that. To have a day here like this at the Meet of Champions, I am so happy for them.”
McCarthy and Zullo went out strong together and were positioned well throughout the race, finishing with their best times over the Holmdel course.
“We took turns going back and forth, back and forth,” Zullo said. “I really like to take it out strong the first mile and Jackson was just sitting on me the first mile. And then the second mile it was reversed and we just were able to feed off each other. It’s funny, we were talking to each other during the race and saying, ‘I’m here or I got you.’ That was funny.
“The course was awesome. I was a little worried that with all the snow that we got it was going to be a little wet but not at all. It was great conditions and no wind.”
Reaching the Meet of Champions was a goal for the Little Tigers, who had a veteran corps with Zullo, McCarthy and Acascio Pinheiro, but also developed some of their younger runners over the course of the season.
“Nobody really had their eye on Princeton,” Zullo said. “After we lost all those guys last year everyone thought Princeton was going to have to be rebuilding this year. But we didn’t take our foot off the pedal. We kept going.”
“We want to be a program that everyone is looking at, whether we have five guys under 16:30 or we have five guys under 18:30. Tyler really put together a great season. And our sophomores, we had them going from running freshmen races last year to some of the top varsity races in the country this year. They had no time to get that JV experience.”
Smirk was thrilled with the performances of not only McCarthy and Zullo, but the younger runners as well.
“Ty ran a great race,” Smirk said of Fu. “And he has been part of the story, the progression of Tyler Fu from a guy who is on the roster to a guy who is going to lead us in the future. We’re real excited about his effort today.
“Jacob Borstein has been this rock for us all season. The Meet of Champions is a different kind of beast and we’re thrilled he had the experience. He’s had an outstanding season for us an it’s hard to say anything but great things about him. He’s been our No. 5 guy because Nick Trenholm missed some significant time with an injury and today he started to show he’s a big part of our future as well.”