At one point, the Middletown South girls cross country team was in solid position to defend its NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III team title from 2011.
With five of its top seven runners returning, a 20:32 average and fourth-place finish at the Monmouth County Championships at Holmdel Park was followed by a 19:13.62 average and third-place finish at the Shore Conference Championships at Ocean County Park. Everything seemed to be falling into place, then superstorm Sandy decimated the Jersey Shore, including parts of Middletown.
Lives were turned upside down, futures were in doubt, but there was still a season to complete. At that point, Eagles head coach Bill Clifton. along with his wife and assistant coach, Kathleen, reached out to his runners.
“I gave them the option if they could find a place to do their workouts,” Clifton said of his runners, several of which live in the particularly ravaged Bayshore section of Middletown. “All seven of them wanted to meet and we all had to get together. It was just so good when we all got together, it just became a positive.”
Clifton and his team met at Thompson Middle School in Middletown, a place with plenty of open fields and even a few hills to run. The result was everyone circling the wagons, getting their work in and when the rescheduled CJ III meet finally rolled around, the Eagles were ready to go.
On the largely-flat course at Delsea High School, Christiana Rutkowski finsihed second to lead the Eagles to a 2-7-19-20-21 showing to repeat as sectional champions with 69 points, 14 better than second-place Hopewell Valley.
“Going into the race, I think they had remembered the kind of feeling they had last year after winning,” Clifton said. “We just really reinforced the hard work. They would certainly not let anything stand in their way of having a great team performance that day.”
The Eagles followed up CJ III with a seventh-place finish at Group III as Rutkowski finished eighth overall.