MADISON _ With its track and turf field under construction since last summer, Whippany Park has had to train on the streets and in the school's hallways.
The Wildcats have adapted admirably, making the best of the circumstances.
On Monday, Jan. 4, the Whippany Park girls, led by versatile senior Gina Dello Russo, further proved its resilience, claiming the Morris County Relays Championship for the first time in school history at Drew University.
The Wildcats, who trailed Randolph by two points going into the decisive 4x400, triumphed in three events - 4x200, high jump, shot put - and edged out the Rams for the crown, 46-41. Dello Russo ran the anchor leg in the 4x400, coming from behind to help Whippany Park take second behind Hanover Park. Randolph was sixth.
"This is awesome," said Dello Russo, also part of the winning 4x200 team. "It's so cool to win a meet with so many competitive schools. We're small and so many girls overlap in events. I had to finish what we started. Everyone worked hard to get me the baton. I just get the baton and go. I just run. I try my best to win it."
Dello Russo played a key role in the pole vault, taking second, and the high jump, where she had a leap of 5 feet. Another senior, Kristen Hall, prevailed in the high jump (5-2) and was in the 4x200 and 4x400. Nickolette Dunbar, a senior, and Kate Matrisciano teamed to take the shot put for Whippany Park with a mark of 82-05. Dunbar threw 47-10.5 on her final attempt.
"We've been getting closer and closer," said Wildcats coach Steve Manni. "I knew this could be the year we'd have the chance to do it. If everyone performed the way they were capable of, we could win. All of the girls are experienced. Going into the 4x400, they knew what they needed to do. They huddled on line while waiting for the final race.
"For a small school to take down the big kids is really something. It was a lot of fun, a very big task, and the girls were up for it."
Ironically, Manni felt the area Whippany Park has suffered most without the use of a track is in preparing for the relays.
"It's affected the handoffs. They're not clean," he said. "Training overall has been much tougher. The streets and hallways are no subsititute for a track. It makes things more difficult. We did the best with what we had."
They certainly did and that made their accomplishments sweeter.
Dunbar and Matrisciano teamed for the Wildcats' first gold, enabling them to repeat in the shotput. Their 82-05 broke the relays record (77-7 1/4) they established in 2015.
"I'm not really happy with it," said Dunbar when asked about her effort. "I could have thrown harder. I was scared of fouling. That's been troubling me."
Dunbar, who did not foul in this meet, said that she's been fouling because she's not getting her left foot down to block and she's leaning down at the back of her spin. She had no troubles at this meet but perhaps was too focused on form, not distance.
Matrisciano, a junior, credited Dunbar with "encouraging me to keep up with her." Dunbar also coaches her teammate, reminding her to focus on her feet and how fast she needs to be to get off a good throw.
"We all work so hard," Matrisciano said. "Every day during break, we were working out. That's why we deserve the victory."
Randolph kicked off the meet with a 32.36 in the 4x51.5 shuttle hurdle. Comprising the quartet, whose time was a county record, were Jessie Pasquale, Meghan O'Malley, Sydney Steiner and Elly Scherer.
The Rams picked up two more firsts, topping the field in the distance medley and 4x800. Nora May McSorley, Courtney Darakjy and Brooke Olson were on both relay squads. In the 4x800, Gabby Wright ran the third leg in 2:35, a personal record. Freshman Kaitlyn Attinello was the second runner in the distance medley.
"All I wanted to do was hold the lead in the 4x800," McSorley said. "I think what Gabby did was most important. She had a lot of pressure on her. She exploded this year. Gabby was never on our 4x800 team. She always performs and lives up to what we want to do."
Wright, typically nervous prior to every race, was pleased to excel for the Rams.
"Our other three runners are amazing and I don't want to let them down," Wright said. "There is a lot of pressure but I know everyone has my back. I just need to have faith."
Hanover Park (Ally DeRiggi, Amanda Hinton, Anna Lazur, Katie Lazur) garnered the gold in the 4x400. In addition to Dello Russo, Hall, Julia Nixon and Lauren Wachenfield ran for the second-place Wildcats. Roxbury was the winner of the 1,600 sprint medley.
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