Courtesy of Gloucester County Times
Lindsay Stetson, November 1, 2007
For the first time in the history of its program, the Gloucester Catholic High School girls cross country team went undefeated to claim the Tri-County Conference Diamond Division title.
Coach Jack Heath expected a strong team with some key returning runners, but he got more than he bargained for with the biggest roster he's ever had of 16 girls.
An even bigger surprise his No. 1, Taylor Mickle, is a freshman. Is the leader of the pack the leader of the team?
"I wouldn't say that," said Mickle. "The captains are the ones who give you all the help I look up to them."
Seniors Shannon McGowan and Rachel Busarello have been with the team since freshman year, so they notice more than most the change over the past four years.
"Freshman and sophomore year we had a five-girl team, so if one of the girls didn't show up, we basically had to forfeit," recalled McGowan. "Last year there was an explosion of interest and this year it was even bigger a bunch of people came out. We just spread the word that it's a lot of fun.
"The incoming freshmen really helped, and all the girls in the middle of the pack push the girls in the front, so we all pushed each other to do well and that's what made us so good this year."
The success of this year's team will most likely improve Heath's numbers next year, but something else is bringing the girls back.
Heath goes above and beyond the call of duty to make practice fun for both the boys and girls team.
"If they like it, they're going to stay with it," said Heath. "It has to be fun, because it's hard work. Running is more than just winning meets, it's something you can do for the rest of your life."
Earlier this season, Heath organized a bus trip down the shore and the team went for a run on the beach. In Mickle's favorite practice, the girls ran across the Ben Franklin Bridge to Penn's Landing and took a ferry ride back.
Two years ago was the first time Heath had a practice at Citizens Bank Park they're going for their third time on Nov. 7. The team runs around the park and is then given a private tour of the stadium.
"They show you everything," said McGowan. "You can go out on the field, but you can't go on the grass they're really strict about that."
When they're not traveling somewhere to practice, Heath comes up with other ways to keep it interesting. They do relay races like last season when the girls had to run with a hot dog hat on their heads and then hand it off to next person in line. Afterwards, Heath bought the team hot dogs to eat.
He also has a potato chips practice.
"You hold chips in your hand, and you can't break them because you want to run loose," explained McGowan. "He's showing us that if you clinch your hands the chips break, so you can tell if you run tense or not. It's a really cool practice, but usually you come back and they're not in your hands anymore because you eat them."
Freshman newcomer Amanda Pegues came out for the team mainly as a way to stay in shape for swimming.
"I made a lot of good friends out of this because I didn't know that many people coming in," said Pegues. "We're not really competitive like, Oh we have to win,' but we do (win). Coach Heath's just really nice. He's not the yelling type of coach like I'm used to in swimming he always tells us we're doing great."
Heath has experts come and speak to the team as well yoga instructors, a sports hypnotist and still to come this year is Ken Sebastian, a pediatrist, to show the runners how to take care of their feet.
On Nov. 12, Villanova University track and field coach Marcus O'Sullivan will speak to the team, a former Olympian who has run over 100 4-minute miles.
To end the season, Heath will have a dinner for the team and their parents at The Boathouse on Cooper River the Monday following the state meet.
That will be the end of McGowan and Busarello's high school cross country careers. Heath's comments at the start of a race, like, "Run fast!" and, "Hurry back, we'll be waiting for you!" are just a couple of positive reinforcements McGowan will miss.
"He's not like all the other coaches that are like, We have to win,'" said McGowan. "He makes you want to run, just because of how positive he is. If I had a negative coach I wouldn't want to run, it would just take me out of it."
Heath is extremely proud of the boys and girls teams and even more happy about the numbers.
"I've had trouble getting five-seven runners," said Heath. "It's a great feeling to have this many runners.
"Next year they're all coming back except Rachel and Shannon, and hopefully more freshmen will come out. It's a great feeling to have to go out and buy more uniforms."