PARSIPPANY _ Every few strides, it seemed, Sierra Castaneda would encounter familiar faces.
Family and friends came out en masse to support the talented runner in her bid for top honors in the North Jersey Section 2, Group III race at Central Park on Saturday, Nov. 8.
Castaneda gave the contingent something to cheer about, completing the course in a personal-record 18:21.08 to take the individual title. By doing so, she pulled off what she and Wolfpack coach Jay Herrigel referred to as a hat trick - county, conference and sectional championships.
"I'm pleased," Castaneda said. "It was great. My coach and I talked about this. (Herrigel) mentioned the hat trick to me and it motivated me. I had a lot of fun. This will give me a lot of confidence going to groups."
Mendham garnered the team crown with 28 points, placing five runners among the first 13. Freshman Hope Tiboni was second and Defne Sement came in third. Elizabeth Timoney and Lucy Jeffs were fourth and sixth, respectively. Christine Mountain was 13th.
"Everyone definitely earned it," Tiboni said. "We looked forward to the race and tried hard. We're really happy with how we did."
Castaneda's journey was ultra pleasant. Her supporters voiced their encouragement and applauded. Going up the first hill, she heard the parents and younger sister of her classmate and teammate, Kenza Oualim, cheering for her in their native French. Castaneda didn't know what they were saying but it helped propel her forward.
"They were everywhere," Castaneda said of her many fans. "I couldn't stop smiling. When I heard the Oualims, it made me laugh. Every time I passed people I knew, I just smiled."
Castaneda, whose average mile was 5:54.4, liked that the air was cool at race time. The temperature was 46 degrees.
"I like running in the cold," she said. "I wouldn't mind it a little bit colder. It seems to make everything more intense."
The first five teams advanced to the groups to be held at Holmdel Park on Saturday, Nov. 15. Sadly, West Morris was sixth behind Mendham, Summit, Chatham, Middletown North and Middletown South.
"That's upsetting," Castaneda said. "I was hoping the team would advance. I'm disappointed about that. We raced well."
The Minutemen, who munched on post-race bagels provided by coach Rob Kertesz, were exceptional. The gap between Mendham and Summit, which came in second, was wide - 43 points.
"Right out of the gate, the pace of this race was a lot faster than previous ones," Tiboni said. "I felt pretty good. Sierra picked it up at a point. That's good to know. I'm going to have to push it and work toward my goals."
Mendham is looking forward to returning to Holmdel. The Minutemen competed in the Shore Invitational in late September on a rainy day.
"Last time, it was muddy in spots but we still did pretty well," said Mountain. "I want to see what we can do there in better conditions."
In North Jersey Section 2, Group II, also contested at Central Park, Parsippany's Ally Schlosser was runner-up, clocking in with a 19:44.32. The Red Hawks were second behind Bernards and will make the trip south next weekend. Also headed to the groups are Whippany Park and Madison.
Jacqueline O'Hale of Hanover Park fifth in 20:35.40. Madison's Cara Smith and Caroline Kranefuss took seventh and ninth place.
Brooke Olson paced Randolph, which won the Meet of Champions last fall, in North Jersey Section 1, Group IV at Garret Mountain by coming in third in 19:02.28. Randolph was runner-up to Ridgewood. The Rams' Margaret Thomson and Nora May McSorley were fifth and 11th.
Morristown turned in a fifth-place finish with Christine O'Kane (fourth) leading the way.
Local runners had success in North Jersey Section 1, Group III. Roxbury senior Olivia Viparina of Roxbury was third overall in 18:48.86. Alexandra Christian of Mount Olive was fifth in 19:28.55. Right behind Christian was Ashleigh Thurston of Morris Hills (19:30.88). The Gaels qualfied for the groups as did Montville and Mount Olive.
Kyra Velock (third) and Jill Boehmcke (sixth) helped Mountain Lakes garner second place in North Jersey Section 1, Group I.
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