Inspired by Park’s progress, leadership, Wilberforce Girls’ Cross County wins county council

WILL WIN: Members of the Wilberforce School girls’ cross country team were all smiles after their first-place finish at the Mercer County Cross Country Championships at Thompson Park last Thursday. Pictured, from left to right, are head coaches Lois Szeliga, Sophia Vardeman, Gwen Mersereau, Abby Readlinger, Sophia Park, Virginia Whitman, Adeline Edwards and Laura Sallade. Wilberforce won with 88 points and WW/P-South was second with 94 points. (Photo courtesy of Lois Szeliga)

Bill Alden

This fall, as she enters her senior season on the Wilberforce School girls’ cross country team, Sophia Park does some extra work.

“I trained hard and I ran a lot of miles,” Parker said. “This summer before the preseason, I was running 35-40 miles a week. My long run was about 10 miles.”

That work paid off at the Mercer County Cross Country Championships at Thompson Park last Thursday, as Parker finished seventh in person to help Wilberforce win the team championship.

Wolverines scored 88 points and WW/P-South finished second with 94 points in winning their first county title. Following Park for Wilberforce, sophomore Adeline Edwards finished 11th, freshman Laura Sallade finished 20th, sophomore Gwen Mersereau, 23rd finisher, and 33rd senior Abigail Ray Dellinger.

Parker’s game plan focused on tracking runners at Princeton High School.

“We actually thought Princeton High School was the team to beat, and they played really well,” he said in 20:03.80 on the 5,000-meter course at Thompson Park. “We started the game with three of them in front of me. I just kept locking the one in front of me.”

As the competition unfolded, Park picked one contestant after another.

“It was very windy; when I started, I wasn’t on the super front,” Parker said. “Throughout the game, I just kept getting ahead of people, so it was actually a really fun game for me.”

Knowing the end result was a very interesting moment for Park and her teammates.

“It was fantastic, we were all standing next to the schedule,” Parker recalled. “The whole Wilberforce crowd cheered; we saw Wilberforce first and we all started screaming. It was amazing, like hearing people say ‘Wilberforce, Wilber What is Foss?'”

For Parker, her passion for running deepened last season when Mesereau and Edwards joined the team.

“The turning point for me was when Gwen and Adeline came to the team, because when I started, I was the front-runner for the team, but I wasn’t that fast,” Park said. “When they came, they were on me and I was like damn, I’m really competitive right now. I’m so grateful they came. We shove each other every day and that’s history.”

Being promoted by Wilberforce head coach Lois Seliga was also key to Parker’s development.

“We have the best coaches,” Parker said. “She’s great, she’s inspiring.”

For her part, Szeliga sensed that her women’s team could have a great day last Thursday.

“Looking at it, I knew there was a path to victory; any of the three or four teams could win this game,” Schliga said. “I talked to them and said ‘we can win this game,’ so they do know to get in. Very close, can’t count.”

With such fierce competition, every point counts. “Every runner ends up passing a girl or two, and each of them fights for it,” Szeliga said. “Gwen over three in the last 100. Laura over at least one. Everyone over at least one, and it all adds up because we’ve only won by six points.”

For Szeliga, it was unforgettable to see her team make history.

“They were screaming and hugging, and the parents were screaming and hugging,” Szeliga said. “It’s incredible, you just want to do your best. As the season goes on, I see Adeline and Sophia playing really well, always at the top of the game. I see Laura coming up. You can see how people are doing, I know they have a chance to actually win. It’s, ‘Do your best, but we have a chance. These are really elite schools and always have great programs. It’s just an honor because they’re great competitor.”

Szeliga credits Park for sparking the team’s competitive fire.

“Sofia was hungry and she was an inspiration to the team; she really pushed everyone to go the extra mile and do more reps,” Szeliga said. “She wants success, she wants team success. She’s a great leader in that regard. As a senior, everything is so important to her. You can tell she really wants to be in the game. She gave her all in. She kept chasing, she didn’t let up. She had a phenomenal race.”

After a promising freshman season, Edwards has become a star.

“Adeline had a breakout season; last year was her first year and she’s improved,” Szeliga said, noting that Edwards set a 19:24.4 in Peddie’s 5000-meter race on Sept. 24 new school records. She’s no longer a surprise, she’s entering that elite category. She’s competitive, she’s just been doing really well. “

The Wolverines got a breakout performance from freshman Salad last Thursday.

“Laura has been improving, just like you would expect a new runner to do,” Schliga said. “Every game she’s getting better and better. She’s a footballer like her brother (veteran star Jeremy Salad). She has to make decisions and that’s very for a young girl. Difficult. She said she was going to try cross country. She loved it. She was very talented and she was such a contender.”

After a rocky start to the season, Mersereau, the standout among sophomores, is hitting his stride.

“Gwen’s health has taken some setbacks this fall, and she’s been battling a number of illnesses,” Schliga said. “I really think those were behind her. She played well on Thursday. She looked good.”

Redlinger came out on top in her final county race.

“Abby has improved a lot this season,” Seliga said, noting that Redlinger’s time of 21:47.70 on Thursday was a personal record. “Every race, she’s improving. In cross country, the fifth-place finisher is key, and their position is how you win.”

With a non-public group meeting in early November, Szeliga sees winning the county title as a good springboard for the state conference.

“I think it really puts us in a good position to release tension for the championship game,” Szeliga said.

“It’s a big thing, it’s a good thing to adapt to the Championship. It puts us in a good position to have them find that grit and really work hard for the team.”

As for the Wilberforce boys, Szeliga was crowned senior standout Jeremy Sallade, who finished third in 16:25.00, just six seconds behind WW/P-South champion Ayush Saran.

“Jeremy was really close to winning the county title, and it was a great game,” Schliga said. “He has a really great camaraderie with all these local kids. They have a lot of respect for each other and they’re friends.”

A fight with PHS’ Marty Brophy helped push Sallade to the front.

“I think Marty and Jeremy have to be the fastest in the final mile, the two of them racing each other in the final mile,” said Szeliga, whose men’s team finished 10th in the race won by PHS. “The game between the two of them pretty much put them in the lead the whole game. He ran a good game.”

Junior Caleb Brox also had a great race for the Wolverines, finishing seventh.

“That’s part of the reason they’ve been so successful because they really push each other and they work so well together,” said Szeliga of Brox and Sallade. “They’ve been arguing all season about who is the leader. That gives every game Both bring freshness. They can play each other and measure where they are.”

Szeliga likes where her men’s team is because the next three players — junior Matt Damrau (41st), sophomore Philip Schidlovsky (72nd) and junior Gabe Chemodakov (101st) ) – there is a lot of room for growth.

“We have some very promising newcomers,” Szeliga said, noting that her Nos. 3, 4 and 5 all joined the team this fall. “We’re building depth. The boys are in the formative phase, capturing the excitement of the girls.”

For her part, Park is trying to transmit the excitement of running to her young teammates.

“I just love all the girls on the team,” Park said. “I want them to love running as much as I did so they can really take it in and train hard. It’s just a great sport to grow as a person.”

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