When he signed up to participate in cross country as a sixth-grader, Middletown High School North’s Tom O’Neill didn’t expected to take the sport too seriously. He merely wanted to stay in shape for basketball season.
Then came the first practice.
“It was the first day of practicing cross country that I started to love it,” O’Neill said. “So I just kept training.”
Heading into eighth grade, O’Neill was training hard every day during the sweltering summer. The hard work translated on the course as he was coming in first in all his races.
Fast forward to today and the results have remained the same. O’Neill is the defending Meet of Champions (MOC) winner.
“He has a passion for the sport. You talk about it and his face lights up,” Middeltown North head coach Richard Pira said. “You can see him shine when he’s at practice or on the course, or even on the track. He loves every minute of it and he makes it look so natural and so fluid. You watch him in practice and you just say to yourself ‘the kid is gifted,’ and he really is.”
He’s not only the top returning runner in the state, but he’s in a deep group of top-notch runners from the Shore Conference with Toms River South’s Kyle Kroon and Freehold Township’s Dylan Tarpey, a trio of some of the top runners in the state.
But no one has more expectations on them from outsiders than O’Neill. Not after winning the M of C at Holmdel Park by 17 seconds with a time of 15:31.
“All the pressure is on because everyone thinks that I’m going to come in first again,” O’Neill said. “It puts a lot of pressure on me. “
O’Neill’s formula for dealing with that pressure is fairly simple. Focus on his training regiment instead.
“It’s just like I try not to think about it,” O’Neill said. “I just train really hard to focus me and my teammates.”
He also has the help of his head coach — who’s been Middletown North’s head coach for the past 25 years — gives O’Neill a simple message.
“Our goal this year is to take each day one day at a time,” Pira said. “We tell Tom to take it one race at a time, see if there’s any improvement that needs to be made and move on to the next race.
No matter how he does, whatever the result is, just run your race, see where you are, take it slow. We have a long season to go and just keep everything in perspective and keep it level. That’s what I try to do. What I’m really trying to do is not excite anyone this year. Everyone has a great deal of expectations for Tom.”
But it’s not just for O’Neill. The expectations for the team are also lofty.
“It’s going to be a very exciting year because our team is looking really good,” O’Neill said. “We have been really working hard. I think this is our strongest team since I have been here.”
One good enough where the goal is to make the Meet of Champions.
If they make it there, it will be behind O’Neill, in both his times and the example he sets for the team.
“All you have to do is come to one of our practices and see how all the younger kids look at what he’s accomplished and want to follow in his footsteps,” Pira said. “And even the upper classmen look at Tom and have worked so hard now to try and be the best runners that they can be because they saw the success Tom had last year and they want that success to be emulated this year.”