Tucker Zullo knows exactly how the runners behind the Princeton High boys' cross country team’s talented top three athletes feel when the bigger meets on the schedule come into focus.
It was just two years ago that Zullo was in their exact position.
“I think that is why it is easy for me to talk to them about they are going through because that was me not too long ago,” said Zullo, a senior who joins seniors Acascio Pinheiro and Jackson McCarthy as part of a talented trio at the front of the Princeton lineup. “I know that they want to do so much right now but what they need to do is focus on the little things.
“They need to know not to go out and try to go 5:15 for the first mile at Holmdel (Park) and go 19 minutes. They need to race their own race and that is something that as a senior and a captain I hope I can help them understand.”
As a junior a year ago competing in his first Mercer County Championship race, Zullo ran an impressive 16:44 to finish as the Little Tigers’ fourth runner, 17th overall, helping Princeton to the team championship.
Now a seasoned runner, Zullo should be in the mix for a high finish at this year’s Mercer County meet, which will be held on Oct. 19 at Washington Crossing Park in Pennsylvania.
The Little Tigers began their prep for the Mercer County meet with a strong performance at the New Balance Shore Coaches Invitational, which was held last Saturday at Holmdel Park.
“I was excited from a team perspective,” said Zullo, who was seventh individually in the Varsity C race to help Princeton finish third as a team. “I was quite pleased with how the team did. We are a young team this year with a lot of sophomores stepping up. They haven’t been in a race with that much competition and none of them buckled under to the pressure.”
Pinheiro was the third overall finisher to lead the Little Tigers, coming in at 16:20. McCarthy placed sixth (16:40) and Zullo was clocked in 16:41 for his seventh-place finish.
Rounding out the top five for Pricneton were junior Tyler Fu, who was 24th, and sophomore Jacob Bornstein, who came in 60th.
Montgomery finished 14th in the Boys Varsity B race. Senior Oliver Yao finished 53rd in 18:08 to lead the way for the Cougars. Junior James Caliguiri finished 69th and sophomore Shakil Shukla was 74th, while freshman Tucker Erbeck and senior Max Zhou rounded out the top five.
“It is only going to be a confidence booster for all of them to run in a race like Shore Coaches and get that kind of experience at Holmdel,” Zullo said. “It is just going up from here. We had our (Colonial Valley Conference) division race on Tuesday and our fifth man, Jacob Bornstein, killed it. He ran a great race and is contributing by doing the little things, which is what we need these guys to do.”
Princeton’s top three of Pinheiro, McCarthy and Zullo is as talented as any team in Mercer County. It’s the development of the runners behind them that will determine if the Little Tigers can win a third straight Mercer title. Zullo is hoping the younger runners don’t get ahead of themselves with their development.
“We all try to train together with everything and I try to take as much pressure off the younger guys as possible,” Zullo said. “I feel like a lot of them before the season were stressed and felt like they had to do too much. No one has to be a hero here.
“We knew we would be very front heavy as a team. What we have seen is the guys four through seven have had such tremendous growth. Now we are saying lets see if we can go and get the other team’s number three. This is new for all of them. I know as someone who went through what they are going through what it was like and we’re trying to lead them as seniors.”
Princeton has won the last two Mercer County titles and two years ago won the Meet of Champions. The program has attained a certain status that this year’s team is looking to maintain.
“We have had so much success as a program,” Zullo said. “Our goal is to make sure this program continues to be good and make sure we’re a state contender every year. This is a program that is continually good and a lot of that has to do with the coaching and the type of guys we have on the team. Everyone out there wants to be there and wants to work hard.”
The Shore Coaches Invitational meet was a big step forward for the Little Tigers.
In the Colonial Valley Conference race on Tuesday, Zullo finished second in a race that included runners from West Windsor-Plainsboro North and West Windsor-Plainsboro South, two teams that will challenge Princeton for the team title at the Mercer County meet.
West Windsor-Plainsboro South won the team championship at the CVC race, while West Windsor-Plainsboro North placed second and Princeton finished third.
“I have been pretty happy, with the start to the season,” said Zullo, who finished in 16:41 in the CVC event at Washington Crossing on Tuesday. “At Shore Coaches I was a little upset. I took it out a little slower than I like to. I was second at the division meet Tuesday and that was a big confidence boost knowing I can match up with the some of the best guys in Mercer County.
“I am very excited for the county meet, especially from the team standpoint. I think we can do good things if we run the way we’re capable of running.”
Princeton will run in the XC Fall Classic at Thompson Park in Jamesburg on Saturday in its final prep for the Mercer County meet.