Jackson McCarthy had his best race of the season at just the right time.
The Princeton High senior rebounded from what he considered a disappointing effort in the Central Jersey, Group IV meet a week earlier to finish sixth at the state Group IV meet last Saturday at Holmdel Park.
McCarthy’s effort helped the Little Tigers finish fifth as a team in the Group IV meet and earn a wild card berth into this Saturday’s Meet of Champions, which will also he held at Holmdel Park.
“I am definitely happy with result,” McCarthy said. “I was coming off a tough race last weekend at sectionals, so I was happy to do what I could for the team and be up there and see what it was like at the top of the race.”
“It was tough conditions (at sectionals) and I just made a few tactical mistakes but I was happy to correct those.”
McCarthy finished in 16 minutes, 29 seconds, which trailed the race winner, Ethan Wechler of Cherokee, by 21 seconds. Princeton’s Acascio Pinheiro was eighth in 16:36, while Tucker Zullo was 27th in 16:57. The top five for the Little Tigers was rounded out by Tyler Fu (49th in 17:15) and Jacob Bornstein (93rd in 17:49).
Montgomery freshman Caroline Mehlhorn advanced to the Meet of Champions with a fifth-place finish in the girls’ race. Mehlhorn finished in 19:02. The Cougars finished 14th as a team in the Group IV race. Elizabeth Henderson was 46th in 20:35, while Emma Noyelle was 85th in 21:32. Skyler Fong (114th) and Hedy Yang (118th) rounded out the top five for Montgomery.
Princeton advanced to run another week and McCarthy is grateful for the opportunity.
“We made it through and that was all we wanted going in, to make it another week,” McCarthy said. “We have a pretty young squad on the back end of our top seven and we wanted to show what we are capable of. Getting to the next level and hopefully getting then the experience will help them when they are fully developed as juniors and seniors. We’re definitely thrilled we made it through.”
McCarthy, Pinheiro and Zullo are all seniors with plenty of big race experience. But for the runners behind them, Fu is a junior and Bornstein a sophomore, while sophomore Sawyer Cano and junior Nick Trenhold rounded out the top seven last Saturday.
“All of them are new to varsity beyond Tucker, Acascio and I,” McCarthy said. “Everybody else is new to varsity racing. So the whole season has been pretty much a learning experience for them and us showing them what it like to handle the reins and needing to score in these meets against big-time teams and they will be taking over the reins in a few years. Things are definitely moving in the right direction.”
McCarthy, Pinheiro and Zullo all ran in the Meet of Champions last year. They’ll come back with another year of experience as they attack the biggest race in New Jersey.
“If I’ve learned anything, it is that there is not a single second to hold anything back,” said McCarthy, who finished 59th in 16:48 last year. “It’s a fast course. It’s a fast race. People want to get there and win titles, so they are going to give it everything they have. I see no reason not to respond the same way. There is nothing else to really save myself up for. So my foot’s on the gas this week.”
Last year as he started to become one of the key runners for the Little Tigers, much of the experience was new to McCarthy. But now that he has established himself as a top runner at the state level, he’s used to the surroundings.
“That is what’s different for me now,” McCarthy said. “I will find myself in the race and looking forward and knowing the first and last name of every person in front of me. So it is definitely new, going into that area. I’m happy to be there and happy to have worked hard over the years to be able to get to this point. I will do my part and try to be a top finisher and put Princeton’s name up there for the end of the season.”
Princeton earned a wild card into the race and McCarthy and his fellow runners plan to hold nothing back on Saturday at Holmdel Park. It’s the same way they have attacked the sectional and state meets the last two weeks.
“If we have learned anything it is that there is absolutely no reason to save yourself for another week,” McCarthy said. “Every race is one race at a time. What is great about having a young team is they are very hungry. So they’re not going to be safe. They are going to take risks and try new things. They want to get better and they want to get to that next level and that really shows in how they race. It is certainly how Tucker, Acascio and I race and hopefully they have learned from that a little bit that taking risks is essential.”
As McCarthy prepares to wind up his senior cross-country season, he is able to reflect on what was an improbable journey. When he entered high school he never thought he would be running cross-country, let alone running in the Meet of Champions.
“I certainly did not,” said McCarthy, who started with the program as a sophomore after concussions forced him to give up some of his other sports. “I never expected that. I came from a bunch of other sports and running was all that was left. I got lucky to be a part of a really good program that was already performing at a high level. I got to be a part of that system and learned from great talents that went on to become Division 1 athletes. I feel like it would be a poor testament to them if I didn’t get to this point.
“I think everybody has helped me get to this point. I’m happy to be here. I think it is great. There is never really a chance to take a break.You just have to keep going. I was sixth last week and I just hope to keep going and be in that top group next week. I do not expect anything less.”
McCarthy and his two fellow seniors - Pinheiro and Zullo - are all hoping for the best on Saturday. And they’ll also be hoping for the best for the younger runners who will be gaining another piece of valuable experience in their journey to the top of the lineup.
“One thing that is different from our program is when our seniors become seniors and then leave they don’t try to leave a legacy, they try to leave behind a foundation of success and what it is like to run at a high level,” McCarthy said. “We don’t ever go into a year thinking we’re taking a step down. We never accept that to be true because the seniors before us left a very good foundation of what it is like to be performing at a high level.
“The seniors before me did that and I hope Tucker, Acascio and I are doing the same for the guys next year.”
McCarthy is certainly grateful to have been a part of the program over the last three years and hopes he has given as much back as he has received.
“Running has opened a lot of doors for me,” McCarthy said. “It’s the rawest form of competition out there and certainly something I am glad that I started. I played baseball, soccer and football. After my fifth concussion it was time to say goodbye to contact sports and turn to running. I got lucky with a school that has a fantastic program.”