Most years in New Jersey, by the time the cross country season gets to the NJSIAA Group Championships and Meet of Champions, an MOC favorite, or at least a short list of favorites has already emerged.
That wasn’t the case this fall. A 2011 season heavy with seniors, plus injuries and illness to preseason MOC favorite Ben Malone of Pascack Valley, created a wide open landscape that was deep with talent, but without that runner everyone pointed to as the one to beat.
By the time Tom O’Neill toed the line at Holmdel Park’s vaunted championship course for the Group III meet on Nov. 17, a favorite still had not emerged. During that race, O’Neill changed that.
A 15:36 and a 17-second win was an eye-opener that day for a cross country community that still didn’t quite know what to expect with superstorm Sandy still acting as a fresh wound, having hampered training, not to mention life, for many.
With the storm rescheduling the state’s cross country program twice, the MOC was moved a mere four days after the Group meets, but it didn’t matter to O’Neill. He steadily moved to the front, hammered everyone over the last mile and won it 15:30 on a blustery day at Holmdel.
“I took it easy in practice, I tried to just stay healthy, keep icing my legs and I was ready to go,” O’Neill said after the MOC of the quick turnaround between Group III and the MOC. “I was working really hard to prove I could do this, to be the best. I’m very happy with everything.”
O’Neill’s win had historic implications. He became the seventh Shore Conference boy to win the MOC and first since former Colts Neck All-American Craig Forys won the second of two straight in 2006.
His win showed the effects of a strong work ethic. Last spring as a sophomore, O’Neill ran just 4:18.64 for 1,600 meters and 9:22.73 for 3,200 meters
“I just practiced really hard, and my coaches and teammates helped me a lot,” O’Neill said. “After the Shore Conference meet (at Ocean County Park), I knew I was capable of getting a good time at Holmdel. I just kept training really hard and when I crossed the finish line, I was really happy when I saw my time.”
O’Neill won Shore Conference on the largely flat OCP layout in 15:03.86 after finishing second at Monmouth County in 16:15.
While last year’s MOC was senior-heavy, this year’s MOC saw the top seven places go to juniors. As a senior in 2013, O’Neill will have an opportunity to become just the seventh boy to win back-to-back MOC crowns.