"They're right up there with any team ever from South Jersey," Cherokee coach Steve Shaklee said. "This team is better than the team I had in 2000 that was ranked eighth in the nation."
Mainland is ranked eighth nationally this year.
Led by senior Greg Hughes, who was second at the Meet of Champions, Mainland dominated all season. With seniors Jimmy Wyner, Spenser Popeson, Alex Palmentieri and Matt McGroarty and junior Joey Masters in the top six, Mainland had a margin for error since five runners are needed to score. Even the seventh runner, junior Ian Roddy, would have been a front-of-the-pack runner on most teams.
Mainland had a team that could have challenged an all-star team made up of runners from the rest of South Jersey. Using times from the Meet of Champions and eliminating runners from the rest of the state, Mainland would finish two points behind a South Jersey all-star team. Using times from the state group meets, the Mustangs would lose by a point. Using times from the South Jersey championships, Mainland would win by 11 points and it would win by nine using times from the Shore Coaches Invitational.
"One word comes to mind and that's elite," Hughes said. "That's what we fought all year to become. We just wanted to come out here, run as hard as possible, put on a great show and show New Jersey that we're the toughest group of guys to run."
Coach of the year. As usual, there were a number of strong coaching performances around South Jersey, notably by John Mitchell, who led Maple Shade to its third straight Group 1 sectional title and a second-place finish at the state meet, and Bill Collins, who led Highland to its first sectional title since 1994.
But when a team is being compared with the best in state history, it's hard to ignore the coach.
Heyman has built Mainland into a state power over the last five years.
Asked for the secret to Mainland's success, Wyner deferred to Heyman.
"You have to talk to the master about that one," Wyner said. "Whatever he tells us to do, we do it and don't argue. That's part of the equation, the great coaching and the dedication of these guys to Coach. He makes us want to work hard."
Most improved team. When the season started, Bill Collins said his Highland team wasn't that good. He didn't want to talk about them, instead pointing out how good Arianna McKinney would be for the Highland girls' team.
She proved to be that good, but by the end of the year, the boys' team gave Collins plenty to talk about.
Led by junior Jim Kavaliauskus, Highland won its first Camden County title since 1996 in a confidence-building meet and then won its first sectional title since 1994, this time in Group 3.
Overlooked team of the year. Cherokee was the second-best team in South Jersey, but stuck in Group 4 with Mainland, the Chiefs were easy to overlook. The Burlington County Open was their only major title, but the Chiefs were an elite team.
They had four runners - senior Nick Freeman, juniors Sean McLaughlin and Tom Yersak, and sophomore Greg Bredeck - break 17 minutes at Holmdel Park. And their fifth runner, sophomore James Maneval ran 17:01 on the course. Only once in the last seven years, when Cherokee never finished worse than sixth at the Meet of Champions, has that many different runners broken 17 minutes in the same season.
Measured against Mainland, Cherokee falters, but measured against any of the top Cherokee teams, this year's group holds its own - and six of the top seven will be back next year.
Race of the year, individual. Cinnaminson senior Jon Anderson cut nearly 30 seconds off his time between the Group 2 state meet and the Meet of Champions. But that still left him behind three runners - JFK-Paterson's Mohamed Khadraoui, Mainland's Hughes and Pope John XXIII's Justin Schied - whom he had not beaten all season.
But the next week, he did.
In one of the big surprises of the season, Anderson was the only New Jersey runner to finish in the top eight at the Foot Locker Northeast Regionals. He moved up three spots over the last 1,000 meters to finish seventh and qualify for today's national championship in San Diego.
Race of the year, team. Without Cherokee's best runners on the starting line for the Olympic Conference Championship, the title was up for grabs for Cherry Hill East, Paul VI and Triton. Triton won the the trophy, beating East by eight points and Paul VI by nine in a three-way scramble.
Triton rode top-ten finishes from Josh Krowicki, Rudy Belko and John Koch to become just the fifth team in conference history to win the meet.
"We just kept working and working," Belko said. "We all put in a lot of miles over the summer and now it pays off."
Adin Mickle added a 21st-place finish and freshman Eric Gotthold clinched the win when he shaved 15 seconds off his personal best to finish 55th.
Contact suburban staff writer Josh Egerman at 856-779-3865 or email@example.com.