PARSIPPANY _ Chatham's Sarah Petitjean is still becoming accustomed to some of the nuances of running cross country.
One of those subtleties is being alone. Loneliness Petitjean has learned, though, is a positive on the course because it likely means there's a significant distance between her and the closest competitor.
On Tuesday, Oct. 19, Petitjean spent the first mile with Megan Smith of Mendham then went it alone the rest of the way, crossing the finish line in 19:12.27 to capture the Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference Large Schools Race at Central Park.
The NJAC Small Schools winner was Grace Wills of Mountain Lakes, who clocked in at 19:30.32. The Minutemen took four of the first six spots to claim the NJAC Large Schools team title. Ines Lemee (third) and Victoria Wong (seventh) led Villa Walsh to top team honors in the NJAC Small Schools race.
"Being alone makes it very challenging," said Petitjean, undefeated in batch meets this fall. "At the second mile, I was questioning how much further I could go. It's weird when you're out on the course and no one's there. I feel like I made a mistake. I always think 'Where is the rest of the race?'"
The rest of the race couldn't keep up with Petitjean, who prefers someone pushing her yet doesn't mind the large gap, especially if it results in a gold medal. Petitjean gave up school and club soccer at the end of her junior year and devoted herself to running.
"I felt really appreciated in running," she said. "I still like soccer but..."
Petitjean, committed to Elon, where she will major in communications, considered the NJAC meet "big" and is looking forward to the Morris County Championship, which will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 26.
"This is amazing," Petitjean said. "I've never won a meet as large as this one. I'm proud of myself and I made my parents and coaches proud. All of my training paid off. I wanted to be aggressive and stay in front. I was confident that I would pull it off and win."
Right behind Petitjean were Mendham's Ava Augustine (19:22.99), Grace Vives (19:38.85), Smith (19:45.57) and Gabriella Pagano of Pope John.
Wills, too, was a soccer player and gave up the sport after sophomore year.
"My personality is to go all in," said Wills, a former midfielder/forward. "I want to put all of my effort and energy into this. I miss soccer sometimes. I want to see what I can do with running."
Wills came from behind to finish first, passing Molly Latincsics of Sussex Tech. Latincsics, runner-up in 19:56.28, was ahead for two thirds of the race but Wills caught her after the second mile, right near the rolling hills.
"It's tough there," Wills said. "I had to work hard."
To conquer the layout at Central Park, Wills, who attended Nike Camp with Latincsics, did what she did in Holmdel recently, breaking the race into different parts.
"I make goals for what I want to do," Wills explained. "Each mile has different challenges. I went out fast and it helped. After that, I found my rhythm."
Now that Wills has devoted herself to running, she won't go back to soccer.
"Running is an individual but a team sport, too," she said. "The running community is so uplifting and I like that. I couldn't wait to congratulate Molly."
Rounding out the top five after Wills and Latincsics were Ines Lemee (Villa Walsh), Grace Mougalian (Kinnelon) and Lisa Veivia (Morris Catholic).
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