PARSIPPANY _ Three-a-week captains' practices haven't been popular among Mendham freshmen in recent years.
One, maybe two, incoming ninth graders would show up for the cross country workouts which typically begin in July.
This past summer was dramatically different. Co-captains Erin McNamara and Christine Mountain ran not only with a large contingent of returning teammates but with six or seven freshmen.
"We know all of them now and we're becoming closer," Mountain said.
And, there's an added bonus...
"They're pretty mature," McNamara said. "They actually listen."
On Wednesday, Oct. 1, the Minutemen, with freshman Hope Tiboni finishing first, put in a strong showing in the second NJAC Large Schools Batch Race at Central Park at Greystone.
Tiboni and the Minutemen were in a tight pack - evidence of their cohesiveness - as they approached the end of the race. Tiboni, a three-time state champion while at Mountain View Middle School in Mendham Borough and owner of a gold medal as a 12 year old at the AAU Nationals, crossed in 19:14.05.
Defne Sement, a junior, was second (19:33.24) followed by Elizabeth Timoney, a sophomore, in 19:42.36. Mountain (19:59.50) took fourth place with freshman Lucy Jeffs (20:04.51) on her heels.
Many figured the Minutemen would be down after the graduation of Mackenzie Barry and other standouts who moved on in recent years like Abby Seel and Reagan Kolokowski.
"We'll be competitive," Mendham coach Rob Kertesz said. "The girls will run even better when it really counts. We have talent. It's going to be fun to see what happens. Having this group bodes well for the future."
Tiboni, aiming to break 19:00 by the middle of the season, enjoyed topping the pack for the first time in high school on one of her favorite courses. She's raced at Greystone since she was 10.
"I love it here," she said. "I know it like the back of my hand. I had a good feeling about today. I connect well with this course. I felt strong. I waited then I picked up the pace."
Although Tiboni spends many hours running, she volunteers for Special Olympics. Her 9-year-old brother, Alex, competes in the shot put and 50-yard dash.
Tiboni, No. 1 in the freshman 2,500-meter run on Sept. 20, has never met Barry, who left an impressive legacy. She did, however, see her on the track while working out in the past.
"(Barry) was so great and worked so hard," Tiboni said. "She was serious. There was no playing around."
One gets the same impression of Tiboni and of Jeffs and Erin Torgersen, the latter two soccer players at Black River Middle School before switching to cross country. They are three of 13 freshmen on the girls team this fall.
Jeffs, not as familiar with Central Park, intends to eclipse 20:00. She, too, is excited about trying to keep Mendham among Morris County's elite.
"I've got to get used to the hills and focus on certain things," Jeffs said. "We're supposed to be pretty good. Our coach thinks we can go far."
Torgersen, 14th in the race on Tuesday, Oct. 1, said everyone "has been so open and welcoming." She and Jeffs became acquainted with Tiboni while competing in middle school.
"We've got high hopes," Torgersen said. "Mendham's reputation is good and we want to keep it going. We'll do our best."
According to Mountain, improved depth will aid the Minutemen in their quest to stay at a high level.
Kertesz likes the freshmen factor.
"They've been great in regards to keeping it light," he said "They're not worrying. They're relaxed. It's better that they don't know everything yet."
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