On the surface, the Christian Brothers Academy cross country team’s state-record 18th NJSIAA Meet of Champions win on Wednesday afternoon looked quite ordinary.
Just like any other significant showing the Colts have had at New Jersey’s vaunted state championship course at Holmdel Park over the years, everyone gathered just beyond the finish line after the race. The runners, teammates, classmates, parents, friends and plenty of CBA cross country alumni all chimed in as longtime head coach Tom Heath led the ‘CBA’ chants.
This seemed like an ordinary MOC win, which would sound absurd if this wasn’t CBA, but this was far from a normal win. No, this one is going straight to the top of Colts lore.
It will be remembered as the year CBA won a state title while resting its five best runners.
Thanks to superstorm Sandy and a rescheduling of the state cross country program, CBA was facing an unprecedented problem. With the Non-Public A race, the MOC and the Nike Cross Northeast Regional slated to take place within an eight-day span, the Colts had no intention of skipping anything, but there had to be some thought about what to do.
The reigning Nike Cross Nationals winner, the Colts are favored to become the first boys team to go back-to-back at NXN since its inception in 2004. To get there, they have to qualify through Nike Northeast, so there was no debate they were running that.
The real problem came with what to do at the state level. The Colts’ full varsity dropped a Holmdel team course average record 16:03.20 in winning Non-Public A Saturday. With the MOC four days later and Nike Northeast coming three days after that, the MOC seemed like the perfect time to not run the full varsity.
While Heath let nothing slip of his pre-race plans, speculation and maybe even common sense said the Colts would probably rest a few top guys, while running some of the varsity mixed with a few of their ‘B’ guys. That way, they can rest, but still put a product capable of winning out on the course on Wednesday.
Heath would say after the fact on Wednesday that as soon as the NJSIAA announced its schedule on Nov. 9, he knew what he was going to do.
Sit his top five guys coming off the course record, run five junior varsity members in addition to his regular varsity Nos. 6 and 7 and see what happens.
This group, three sophomores, two freshmen, a junior and a senior, stunned the cross country community by winning the MOC with 110 points and a 16:30.80 team average.
“As soon as we heard the meet was gonna change, we basically told this group it’s in their hands and no matter what happens, they’re gonna gain experience and its gonna be exciting,” Heath said. “As we’re getting on the bus, they were completely white, they were scared out of their freaking minds and I told them if they do bad, I’m gonna take all the blame because I put them in there.”
New Jersey cross country, Holmdel Park and the MOC are steeped in tradition and memories. From Craig Forys’ course record in 2006, to Joe Rosa running an unthinkable sub-15:00 in 2009 and on and on dating all the way back to the event’s inception in 1972.
With that said, if CBA had not won, Wednesday would have gone down as a largely forgettable MOC. Don Bosco Prep, which is also lining itself up for Saturday and Nike Northeast, opted to run its top four guys, making it the favorite as the gun went off. The problem there was the Ironmen’s two freshmen running as their Nos. 4, 5 and 6 runners faded badly and they finished fifth as a team.
If CBA had sat everybody, not won Wednesday and then not gone on to win Nationals on Dec. 1, that decision would be picked apart forever and this MOC would have be rendered even more forgettable. Thankfully, that’s no longer an issue.
Whether you want to call Heath’s decision a calculated risk, a leap of faith or otherwise, it was done in the best interest of the program and no one is going to argue with the gatekeeper of the state’s top program for more than four decades.
The day at Holmdel ended with many onlookers literally speechless after what they witnessed. That’s understandable when a group of kids pulls off something you’ve never seen before and aren’t likely to see ever again.