What had been a frustrating season for the Princeton High indoor track and field team neared its conclusion on a positive note.
“With all the injuries it has been a challenging winter,” Princeton coach Ben Samara said. “To go out on a high note on both the boys and girls sides is really special.”
In a huge week for the program, consisting of the Eastern State Championships on Feb. 19 and the NJSIAA State Meet of Champions over last weekend, Princeton recorded five personal bests, four school records, three Meet of Champions medals and one individual state champion.
Senior Nils Wildberg, who has battled a partially torn meniscus and has been forced to sit out most of this season, returned to win the inaugural NJSIAA Meet of Champions Long Jump Showcase, jumping 23-4.
Wildberg is the first individual state champion from Princeton in 36 years, joining Peter Sharpless and Stephen Fletcher as the only boy athletes to ever earn the honor. The Meet of Champions was held at the Bennett Center in Toms River.
“A few weeks before I was uncertain if I would even be able to compete,” Wildberg said. “I knew that if there was any chance of getting back and popping off some big jumps it would be at these big meets. Easterns was a great start and MOC felt great.”
Wildberg won the long jump at Easterns with an effort of 23-4.5, which set up him up for another big day at the Meet of Champions.
“I was actually pretty surprised with Easterns because I hadn’t really trained for almost two months,” Wildberg said. “So I didn’t have that base of fitness I would have had if I was not injured. The Armory (in New York) is a great place to jump. I did what my coaches told me to do to prepare. Popping off a 23-4 jump at Easterns was definitely a surprise. I am very thankful to all of my coaches, especially Coach Samara and Coach (Frank) Harrison.”
Samara wasn’t sure what to think of Wildberg’s chances heading into the meets last week but he knew no one would work harder to get back into a position to win.
“A couple of people commented to me that I looked nervous through the night,” Samara said. “As much of a favorite as he would be normally, having sat out for two months leveled the playing field. He was able to jump (at Easterns) and jump well. But we were not sure how he would recover after that meet. He’s lost strength and conditioning over the last two months. I think he showed the kind of competitor he is. Even on his worst days he is one of the best in the country.”
Also at the Meet of Champions, junior Simon Schenk cleared a new personal best and school record of 15-6 in the pole vault for a third place finish. Schenk ranks among the top 40 vaulters in the United States. The winner on the day cleared 15-6 on fewer attempts and Schenk just missed a winning vault on his first attempt at 16-feet.
Simon has been slowly working his way back into shape and through all the trials and tribulations to get his timing back he kept plugging away and working,” Samara said. “This was the meet we were targeting since the beginning of the winter.”
In the 1,600 meters, senior Tucker Zullo finished 17th (4:26.18). Earlier in the week, Zullo finished third in the mile at Easterns with a personal best of 4:23.21. Also at Easterns, senior Jackson McCarthy had a huge personal best in the 800, running 1:56.89 for a new indoor school record.
“I think Tucker showed us at Easterns what he can do when he gets to a race with really good guys,” Samara said. “Jackson didn’t qualify for Meet of Champs, but he took that out on the field at Easterns. He caught the right race at the right time.”
For the girls, Colleen Linko, Kendall Williamson, Raina Williamson and Gabby Goddard medaled, finishing eighth in the state in the girls 4×400 relay with a new indoor school record time of 4:01.84. Goddard anchored the relay, splitting a monster 57.85.
Earlier in the week, at the Easterns, the quartet set a new, all-season school record in the 4×200 relay, running 1:46.70.
“Those four girls just continue to exceed expectations,” Samara said. “Kendall had been struggling on the first leg so we switched the order up for a different look and she dropped time. Gabby closed with one of the best anchor legs I have seen.”
While injuries put a damper on the season as a whole for both Princeton teams, the strong finish left everyone feeling good about what lies ahead.
“It was a huge springboard for the spring,” Samara said. “We’re looking to come back with as many people healthy as we can. The guys would like to defend their county, sectional and group crowns. This is a special group that doesn’t deserve to be considered a one-hit wonder. Injuries have put that on hold but the guys are motivated.
Princeton will have a presence in the New Balance Nationals in New York from March 8-10 as Schenk, McCarty and Wildberg will join shot putter Paul Brennan and the girls sprint medley, which will compete in the emerging elite race.
“The string of injuries has been unfortunate and frustrating, but things happen,” Wildberg said. “It is sort of the life of an athlete. Track itself is not only a physical challenge, but mental as well. You just have to keep a positive mindset and get back over these setbacks.
“I definitely took some inspiration from Simon. He is a phenomenal athlete and just a fantastic guy and hard working. It’s the same with the other guys and girls in the program. It’s a phenomenal group to be a part of.”
Montgomery’s Abrianna Barrett finished third in the high jump at the Meet of Champions, clearing 5-6. The Cougars’ Caroline Mehlhorn was eighth in the 1,600 meters and Sarah Witt finished 10th in the 400 meters.