Highland named Times boys cross country Team of Year

Two years ago the Highland Regional High School boys cross country team went 1-5 in the Tri-County Conference Royal Division. Last year the Tartans had a huge turnaround, finishing 5-1 with their only loss coming to a solid Delsea squad.

This year, though, the Tartans were second to none, finishing their 2011 campaign undefeated at 5-0. Their two closest meets came against Clearview and Kingsway, in which they won by a combined 11 points. They’re vast improvement over the past few years and their achievement of the Tri-Co Royal title has earned them Gloucester County Times Boys Cross Country Team of the Year honors.

“This was all part of a three-year plan,” Highland head coach Bob Wagner said.  “You can’t get better overnight, you have to work on it. Heading in we just figured we’d win the conference.”

And though the Tartans will celebrate the division crown for the next year, there was one meet that they marked on their calendar before the season started. It was into that meet that they’d put all their time and effort.

“Our whole season was centered around one meet - sectionals,” said Wagner, whose Tartans dropped from Group III into Group II this year.  “We really wanted to beat Haddonfield.”

The Tartans ended up finishing second with 56 points, just six points back of the champion Bulldawgs. Had they still been battling the Group III field, their team average time of 16:40.81 would have been nearly four seconds faster than champion Kingsway’s average of 16:44.66.

“If we ran the same way, we would have won in Group III,” Wagner said.

Leading the way for the Tartans was sophomore Steve Maine, who finished second in South Jersey Group II with a time of 16:05 an went on to post a time of 16:43 at states the next week to qualify for the Meet of Champions as a wild-card runner.

“It’s been a crazy process,” said Maine, who is riddled with natural talent.  “I just started running last year. It’s been up and down, a lot of highs and lows, but we made do. I’m glad I picked this sport.”

Maine considers the second-place finish behind Haddonfield at sectionals a bittersweet experience.

“I thought we had them,” he said.  “We ran our hearts out and ran 110 percent. They just ran better than us. We didn’t do anything wrong, they just had a better day. We had a great season and everyone worked hard, it was just a tough loss to take.

“But it was an accomplishment for where we came from to almost beating one of the top teams in South Jersey. That alone is a huge accomplishment.”

Senior Steve Lafferty has been around since the dark days, and said the help of Wagner and assistant coach Josh Krowicki have been a huge help.

“This all took a lot of hard work, a lot of hours and a lot of help from the coaches,” Lafferty said.  “It’s always great having (Krowicki) out there running with you, keeping us level-headed and keeping us from slacking off. He’s definitely been a big help.”

Time will tell if the Tartans can stick to their winning ways, as four of their top five finishers (Lafferty, Joe Benckert, Cory Constantine and Eric Glass) at sectionals will be lost to graduation. But with Maine leading the way and Wagner and Krowicki at the helm, it seems anything is possible.