WILLINGBORO - This isn't supposed to be one of Cherokee High School's better teams. Don't tell the rest of the county.
Cherokee, which graduated most of the team that placed second at Group 4 states last year, won another Burlington County Open Friday, outrunning Lenape and Shawnee for its third straight title and 11th in the last 13 years.
"At first, our main goal was just to win the division," said senior Steve Burkholder, who placed third. "Then, as we started getting better and better, our goals started getting higher and higher. We started talking about winning the Open, and now we're talking about sectionals and maybe even the state meet. It just seems like we're getting a little bit better every week."
Cherokee overcame Shawnee's 1-2-4 finish and a strong 48-second Lenape pack to win the 14th Open title in school history. Cherokee backed up Burkholder with seniors Matt McCarroll and Josh Perez, who placed eighth and ninth, and junior Ryan Bobb, sophomore Aiden Lynch, junior Greg Malloy and senior Kyle Smith, who all finished in the top 23.
"When we run workouts, we concentrate on having our two through seven guys in a tight group, and if one person falls off, he's got to try to get back up with the group as fast as he can," Burkholder said. "We really focus on running as a team, and we did that today."
Despite cold and rainy conditions, Shawnee senior David Forward won his second straight individual title in 16:12, only eight seconds off his own course record. Sophomore teammates Connor Herr and Peter Murray were second and fourth in 16:21 and 16:35. It was the first 1-2 finish since Cherokee's Marc Pelerin and Keith Krieger in 2001.
But Lenape, led by sophomore Sean Mulroy and junior Hayes Rainier in fifth and sixth, snuck past Shawnee to take second, matching its best team finish in 30 years. Cherokee scored 51, Lenape 60 and Shawnee 63.
Either Cherokee or Shawnee has won the Open team title 16 straight years, since Delran won in 1993.
A runner from either Shawnee, Cherokee, Lenape or Cinnaminson has finished first at the Open 15 years in a row, since RV's Jon Harris in 1994.
"We spread out a little more than I would have liked, but overall we ran real well," Cherokee coach Steve Shaklee said. "After Burk, we have a real balanced group. On any given day, they can finish in any order. We never really know who's going to be where. Today, Josh Evans was our third guy, which was great for him. If we can close that gap a little more, we can be in the hunt in some of the bigger meets coming up."
Forward became Shawnee's second two-time champion. Forward placed ninth as a freshman and sixth as a sophomore.
"Alex Yersak (of Cherokee) won when I was a freshman and sophomore, and ever since I won last year I definitely wanted to repeat," Forward said. "It means a lot to me. There's always so much competition in our county that it's big winning this meet two times in a row."
Last year, it was Northern Burlington's Michael Bowden - a 9:12 two-miler - chasing Forward to the finish line. On Friday, it was Herr, the top sophomore in the state.
"I heard footsteps the whole race," Forward said. "I never felt like it was a sure thing out there. Connor is running so well right now, and Peter keeps moving up, too. Those guys are going to be unbelievable next year."