The Championship Season is "what it's all about!" Months, maybe years of training, and it's all on the line! One misstep, one dropped baton, one unbalanced throw, one poorly-timed jump and it's all over! It includes two sharpening events, the Cherokee Last Chance Meet and the Cherokee Distance Night, followed by the South Jersey Group IV Sectional Championships at Washington Township High School, where the top six in each event advance to the State Group IV Championships at Franklin High School, and, from there, the top six advance to the State Meet of Champions at South Plainfield High School!
On April 28, 2021, the team hosted a unique opportunity, the Cherokee Last Chance Meet, for two groups of athletes: those who wanted to establish a stronger seed time for the up-coming state meet and those who wanted a final opportunity to end the season with a Personal Best! Great goals but probably only the stringest met them as it was windy, cold and raining: not great conditions for PR's!
Several lines from an old coach capture the fun! "On a day like this, the hardest part is just getting off the bus!" and "The hardest part for the coach is to act like it's normal for kids to run around in 'their underwear' in this weather!"
Several of our athletes competed in the meet and the official results provide some interesting details, often because the guys competed in races that were trying for the first time! In the 100m Dash, Ryan Bender and Marc DePhillips set PR's for the first time, and DePhillips returned to set another PR in the 200m Dash!
In the 400m Dash, Evan Pawlik, Marcellus Malloy and Elijah Gil set PR's, then Evan and Joshua Pawlik returned to set PR's in the 800m Run! In addition to the Pawlik's, Lucas Hatch, Thomas Bland, Kevin Hess, Danny Hassall, Nate Meyers and Brett Vagiello also set PR's in the 800!
In the 1600m, eleven guys entered -- many of whom racing for a second time this week -- and six -- Aiden Dickinson, Bradley Popler, Robert Poplau, Ben Hackney, Joe Natoli and Jack Delaney -- set new PR's! Also among the runners, Wilson Leung set a PR in the 400m Intermediate Hurdles!
Among the Throwers, it was a first time recorded by several Freshmen! Anthony Maszlanka established his first recorded PR in the Javelin; Austin Bird and Jay Duque did the same in the Shot; and Sophomore Nathan Brooks also established his first PR in the Shot!
For the second time this season, there is another winner of the Safe at Home Plate Award and, again, there was another contest between two of our athletes for the honor, both in the 800m, and in separate races! The one, a legitimate distance runner, Freshman Nate Meyer, and the second, a sprinter wannabe distance runner, Junior Kevin Hess! A team of at least a dozen onlookers debated the merits of each fall! Meyer, a young Freshman, dropped clumsily to the ground just after finishing his PR-setting race, while Hess, a seasoned runner, fell gracelessly and slid some distance on his back and shoulder, after racing only 400m of his 800m race! He asserted that he was "interfered with" by another runner but the official at the location argued that he fell over his dangling shoelace! (It should be noted that, even with this fall, Mr. Hess continued on with his race!) Whatever, the Safe at Home Plate Award is given for the uncommon majesty of the fall and, clearly, the onlookers decided, Mr. Hess must be named the winner! Congratulations Kevin Hess!
Coach Shaklee shared his thoughts about the meet and his distance runners:
"The weather for the Cherokee Last Chance Meet did not exactly cooperate. Temperatures in the low 60's, rain showers and gusty winds made it a somewhat difficult day [Shak, the master of understanement!] for competition. However, the Cherokee Distance Team still managed some nice efforts!
"Although not distance runners, the 'long sprinters' who moved up to the 800 - Lucas Hatch, Tommy Bland, Kevin Hess and Josh Pawlik - did a nice job! Of particular note was Lucas' race. He ran a very competitive effort and set a new PR while taking 3rd place overall! Kevin Hess also did a nice job of getting back up from his nosedive to the track half way through! From the distance squad, Danny Hassall and Nate Meyer both competed aggressively and both came away with new PR's!
"Aiden Dickinson provided the highlight of the 1600, running a tough, savvy race to finish 3rd and knock six seconds off of his previous best! Bobby Poplau, Ben Hackney and Jack Delaney all set new PR's as well while Joe Natoli set a season best!
"Although some may question their sanity, both Andrew Free and Joe Hough elected to double back in the 3200m Run despite the miserable conditions! To their credit, they both ran very well and Joe even managed to knock almost a half a minute off of his previous best!
"One race-day remains for the guys not running sectionals, the second Cherokee Distance Night! This one will feature 800's and 1600's and takes place next Tuesday, June 8th. The goal is to end the season on a positive note and establish new PR's right down the line for each Cherokee athlete entered!"
Official results at: NJ.MileSplit.
And while we all recognize it was a tough night for racing and setting PR's, let's give some props to the photographer who took over 2,000 pictures at the meet, edited and posted more than 1,100 on MileSplit and saved the Cherokee pictures for our website! Some of the pictures from the meet are available below but all the pictures from the meet are available at: Google Drive.
On June 4 and 5, 2021, Cherokee returned to Washington Township High School for the NJSIAA South Jersey Sectional Championships and came home with some great memories!
Once again, the distance squad made the greatest impression and Coach Shaklee was the first to report on their performances!
"The goal each season is to be at your best when the championship season comes around. For the Cherokee distance runners this weekend, goal accomplished!
"We came into Sectionals both excited and disappointed. Excited to see what we could accomplish. Disappointed that our Senior Co-Captain and #1 runner all season, Brett Shea, would not be racing due to a back injury. Brett had a great season going and was primed to really show what he could do at Sectionals until his back went out on him a week from the meet. He did everything he could, including several visits to the chiropractor, to get better. Unfortunately, it did not happen. We all hope that he will be running soon and that he will be able to compete with us on the 4 X 800 Relay next week and at the Meet of Champions!"
"Although we were all unhappy not to have Brett with us, the athletes who competed this weekend stayed focused and raced tough. First up was the 1600m Run. After a two-hour storm delay, the race finally went off after 7 PM. Sophomore Patrick Ditmars and Senior Co-Captain Nico Grilli were representing Cherokee against a tough field, including the two fastest milers in the state, Jackson Braddock and Kyle Rakitis! Through three laps, it was a crowded race for 3rd (Braddock and Rakitis were having their own race for 1st) with seven runners still bunched tightly. Nico made his move on the backstretch and began to string out the field. Patrick was at the back of the group of seven but began to move up until he got to the end of the straight and seemed to lose momentum. Coming off of the last turn, Patrick found another gear and began picking off opponents down the homestretch. Not far from the line, he edged past his teammate and crossed the line in 3rd place with Nico right behind him in 4th! Both set new PR's - 4:20.15 and 4:20.63! Those times moved them to 10th and 11th on the All-Time Cherokee List! In addition, Patrick's time established a new Sophomore Record, surpassing the time of 4:20.96 run by Chris Spisak in 2018! In the aftermath of the race we discovered that Braddock had been DQ'd on an official's judgement call of interference, moving Patrick and Nico to 2nd and 3rd!
"At 9:45 that night, Patrick doubled back to joined Tommy Bromley, Conor Jacob and Danny Boria in the 4 X 800 Meter Relay. Several schools had very strong teams running with the biggest challenge coming from Southern and Lenape. Tommy ran a strong lead-off and kept us close, handing off to Conor in 3rd with a 2:01.90 split! Conor went right to work! He was out in under 56 seconds through the first 400! Coming off the last turn, Conor moved to the lead and opened up on the field, giving the baton to Danny with a 15 meter lead! Danny ran his best race of the year, recording a 2-second PR of 2:04.22, to hand-off only about 10 meters behind the leaders! Patrick ran aggressively from the start and close the gap by the backstretch.! Although Patrick went to the lead, three other teams were still in contention with a lap to go and it wasn't until the last 200 that Cherokee and Southern began to separate. Coming into the final stretch, the Southern anchor moved out and challenged Patrick for the lead. Although tired from his earlier race, Patrick held his form and held off the challenge all the way to the line, finishing with a PR split of 1:57.37 to give us the victory in an impressive 7:59.94, the fastest time out of any of the sectional races around the state!
"Saturday's weather for the second day of Sectionals was sunny and hot . . . decent conditions for the 800 but not so much for the 3200. Despite the heat, our 3200 runners - Benny Hackney, Nick Kuenkel and Bradley Popler - were ready! Benny went first running in Heat 1 and racing to a 7th place finish in his heat! In Heat 2, Bradley and Nick both ran very well! Bradley knocked a second off his PR despite the heat and managed to finish 13th in the heat and 15th overall! Nick was in a tough race with a heavily upperclassmen field led by the same duo who went 1-2 in the 1600! Despite his Freshman status, Nick ran like an experienced racer, both smart and tough! The final result saw him finishing 4th with an new Freshman School Record of 9:34.50, a full 4 seconds faster than the previous record he set under much more favorable conditions at the Cherokee Night of 3200's in April! It is the highest finish ever at Sectionals by a Cherokee Freshman and Nick is the fastest Freshman in New Jersey over 3200 meters this year by over 9 seconds!
"In the 800, Tommy Bromley was in the second fastest heat and ran very well to finish 3rd in the heat and 11th overall! In the seeded heat, the same duo of Rakitis and Braddock were the prohibitive favorites for the first two spots and they, again, did not disappoint as they finished 4 seconds ahead of the rest of the field! The race was really for 3rd and both Nico Grilli and Conor Jacob figured prominently in the battle for that spot! Five hundred meters in, there were at least five or six athletes in contention. It was then that Nico went to the lead and began to shake things up. He held the lead (for 3rd) until almost the finish when Conor passed him to grab the 3rd spot and an Egg Harbor Twp runner caught him just at the line. Conor set a new Open 800 PR of 1:57.06 and Nico's 5th place finishing time of 1:57.44 broke his previous best by a full second!
"Finally, Patrick Ditmars came back for a 3rd race of the meet - the 4 X 400. He was running with Kevin Hess, Tommy Bland and Lucas Hatch, who all ran well to give the baton to Patrick in 4th place! Patrick dropped a 51.1 anchor to maintain his position and help the relay advance to next week's State Group 4 Championship Meet!"
Skimming over the official results, some others, besides the distance squad, had personally important performances, including Kevin Pecan and Marc De Phillips who set end-of-the-year PR's in the 100m Dash; Kevin Hess who just missed his PR but finished 3rd in the Open 400m Dash; and Zach Palfy, whose 11' 6" Pole Vault PR set earlier at an unreported meet, finally received official recognition when he cleared the height here at Sectionals! Lastly, as mentioned by Coach Shaklee the 4 X 400m Relay team of Chima Opara, Thomas Bland, Kevin Hess and Patrick Ditmars clocked a season-best 3:28.80, took 4th, and advanced to Groups!
Our photographer caught the action on Friday but gave up after darkness fell and missed the 400m and 4 X 800m Relay. He returned on Saturday and shot all the on-track action as well as some Long Jump and High Jump! Here are a few and all the rest can be found at: Google Drive.
Reuben Frank reported on the incredible success of Cherokee's younger runners at Sectionals in his SJTCA Blog, specifically at Young Cherokee Distance Team Shines at Sectionals. As usual, we've copied the article on our server at: Young Cherokee Distance Team Shines at Sectionals!.
Official results at: NJ.MileSplit.
On June 8, 2021, the last of the season's meets at Cherokee High School, Cherokee Race Night # 3, was canceled because of a little rain! Yeah, "back in the day" we never canceled a meet because of a few rain drops but that's what happened last night! OK, there was some thunder and lightning but that's what you should expect when The Chiefs race! GO CHEROKEE!
On June 10, 2021, Coach Kevin Cuneo, former Cherokee athlete and now coach at Timber Creek High School, felt sorry for the athletes who were unable to race at Cherokee on Tuesday and he introduced his own aptly named TC Last Minute Last Chance Meet to provide a final opportunity for those not going to Groups to set an end-of-the-season PR! Several of Cherokee's distance squad raced and our photographer was there to capture the action!
Coach Shaklee supplied this summary of the action:
"After the disappointment of the canceled Cherokee Distance Night, it was a pleasant surprise when Coach Cuneo of Timber Creek offered to host a small meet two days later, thereby giving the guys one last chance to improve on their season best. For many of the runners, it was, perhaps, one race too many as not a lot of PR's were set. However, two PR's came in the 800 where Bobby Poplau and Andrew Free placed 1st and 2nd! Andrew knocked about a 1/2 second off of his previous best while Bobby took a full 7 seconds off his previous PR! Good way to end the season! In the 1600, one PR was set and it was a big one as Danny Hassall dropped 9 seconds from his previous best time to end the season in style! Now, time for a little break and then a good summer of training in preparation for Cross Country!"
Our photographer provided these pictures from the meet: Google Drive.
Results at: NJ.MileSplit
On June 11 - 12, 2021, those who qualified at the NJSIAA South Jersey Sectional Championships traveled north to Franklin High School for the NJSIAA State Group 4 Championships and Coach Shaklee was quick to comment on the performances of his athletes!
"We approached the State Group 4 Championships with anticipation after running very well in the distance events at Sectionals! We knew that, with good races, we could get several guys through to the Meet of Champions individually and we felt we had a good chance to win the state title in the 4 X 800 Relay.
"Things started off well as Nico Grilli and Patrick Ditmars both PR'd in the 1600 and both broke 4:20 for the first time! Their efforts qualified them for the Meet of Champions and moved both runners up slightly on the All-Time Cherokee List! Nico is now 9th and Patrick is 10th! Patrick also improved his School Record, Sophomore 1600! Both athletes plan on moving further up the list at the State Meet of Champions!
"The last race of the day on Friday at States was the highly anticipated 4 X 800 Relay! We adjusted the line-up in order to hopefully maximize our potential to win (Conor Jacob - Tommy Bromley - Nico Grilli - Patrick Ditmars). However, some things are just not predictable and we could never have imagined the situation that occurred when the officials decided not to use the waterfall start and instead put all the runners on the back line. When the gun went off, everyone converged on lane one (where Conor started) and in the resulting mix-up, the baton was knocked from Conor's hand, rolling back toward the starting line! It seemed an obvious thing to call the race back and redo the start but the officials did nothing, claiming they did not see what happened. Conor ran back, picked it up, and worked on closing the gap. It was not to be and we found ourselves never in the race. It was a disappointing experience and one we plan to correct in the 2022 Spring Track season!
"Saturday was an unseasonably comfortable day for distance running when freshman, Nick Kuenkel, took to the track for the 3200m Run. Already the school freshman record holder in the event and the fastest freshman in the state by a good margin, Nick was looking for more, and he found it! The race was fast from the start and Nick got pulled through the first 1600 much faster than he had ever been out. To his credit, he ran a gutsy second 1600 and even managed to kick by three runners in the last 100 meters to finish 8th and drop his time all the way down to 9:27.73, a full 13 seconds under the School Freshman Record prior to this year and a full 16 seconds faster than the next fastest freshman in the state this season!
"Nico qualified for but decided not to run the 800m so Conor was our lone entrant in that event! Still a little shell-shocked from the relay fiasco, Conor struggled to get off the line and get into the race. To his credit, he still managed a very respectable 1:58.86 but he did not advance to the Meet of Champions.
"Finally, the 4 X 400m Relay was the last event of the meet and Patrick Ditmars again joined Kevin Hess, Tommy Bland and Lucas Hatch, just as he did last week at Sectionals. They managed a time just offof their season best from last week with Patrick splitting a fully- automatic 50.08 on the anchor! With three of the four legs returning, next year's 4 X 400 should be even better!"
Tough gig for our photographer! Two cameras failed him -- or he failed them -- and MANY pictures had to be trashed or seriously "photoshopped" just to produce marginal results! Hurumph!
Here are all the pictures from the meet on the District's Google Drive.
For years, the team has been gifted with two sets of twins -- the Brandreths and the Pawliks -- but only this weekend did a third set emerge! (What's in the water around here?!) Well-known Sophomore star, Patrick Ditmars was joined at the Group Championships by his lesser- known brother, Slick! The two are so alike that even their coach treated them as one! Patrick, for example, raced on Friday and then his brother, Slick, raced on Saturday but Coach Shaklee thought Patrick raced both! As the pictures suggest, Slick is the more-polished of the two! While Patrick is satisfied wearing loose-fitting "distance" shorts and allowing his hair to fly uncontrolled in the wind, Slick prefers the tighter- fitting "sprinter" shorts and a smooth, even sleek, hairstyle! Their physical differences seem obvious to all who look but their racing skills are as equal as one can imagine! Amazing! GO RICK! GO SLICK!
Details at: NJ.MileSplit.
On June 19, 2021, three team members who advanced from last week's State Group Championships competed in the "ultimate" championship in the state, the NJSIAA State Meet of Champions: Senior Nico Grilli and Sophomore Patrick Ditmars in the 1600m, and Freshman Nick Kuenkle in the 3200m!
Coach Shaklee sent the following message on the Meet of Champions . . . and a little more!
"June 19th was a hot and humid day for the State Meet of Champions. In their infinite wisdom, the powers that be decided we might as well hold the competition during the hottest part of the day - starting at Noon and going through the afternoon. Our three athletes who had qualified, refused to use that as an excuse and they simply prepared themselves mentally for a tough day. They did a nice job of it!
"Senior, Nico Grilli, and Sophomore, Patrick Ditmars, were first up in the 1600. Of the 45 athletes who qualified for the meet, Nico and Patrick went in as the 19th and 20th seeds. There were a number of scratches from the event so both Nico and Patrick wound up in the seeded section. The race went out quickly and both runners held on and did their best to let the pack pull them along. Nico moved up a little on lap 3 and ran a solid last lap to finish 11th in the seeded heat and 13th overall with a new PR by the slimmest of margins! A good way to end a good high school career!
"Nico leaves as the 9th fastest miler in Cherokee history! More important than his accomplishments on the track, however, is the example he leaves behind for the returning runners. Nico overcame obstacles constantly! He spent a good portion of his high school running career battling injury, yet he never complained and he stayed focused and determined! We can all learn a lot from the graceful way he handled his challenges! We wish him well as he moves on to college (Monmouth University) and we are anxious to see what he will accomplish at the next level!
"Meanwhile, Patrick was feeling the effects of a long season and a fast first lap. He did his best to stay with Nico but he lost some ground on the 3rd lap. To his credit, he didn't give up! Instead, he dug deep and found a way to close on the last lap, finishing only 7/10th of a second behind his senior teammate and only 6/10th off of his own PR!
"Patrick ends the season as the 10th fastest miler in Cherokee history and the fastest sophomore we have ever had! His spirit and enthusiasm, along with his talent and toughness, will take him a long way over the next two years! We are all excited to see how fast he will run before he graduates!
"By the time we got to the 3200 Meter Run, freshman, Nick Kuenkel, had been out in the heat of the day for hours. It had to have an affect even though Nick did his best to stay hydrated and stay in the shade. He was the 24th seed out of the 45 qualified runners and the 18th seed out of the 32 runners who actually entered. That put Nick as the 3rd seed in the first (unseeded) heat. As a freshman, It would have been understandable if, after a long season, Nick found it difficult to find the motivation needed to race well on a hot day, in a race in which 17 runners took to the line with faster PR's. However, he did not let those obstacles stop him. Nick did what he has done all season. He stayed focused and he ran an intelligent, tough race! As a result, he once again "overachieved!" He was the 3rd seeded runner in his heat but he finished 2nd! He was the 18th seeded runner in the competition and he finished 11th - a remarkable accomplishment for a freshman!
"Nick was the only freshman in any of the three distance races (800, 1600, 3200) at the Meet of Champions! Of the ten runners who finished ahead of him, six of them were seniors and the remaining four were juniors. Nick finishes the season as the freshman school record holder in the 800 (1:59.8) and the 3200 (9:27.73) and, if not for the unfortunate weather-cancellation of our last distance night meet, he would without a doubt also own the record in the 1600! Nick's 3200 PR puts him 10th on the All-Time Cherokee List trailing nine athletes who all ran their respective times as seniors. It is clear that Nick is a talented athlete. However, what is even more remarkable is the poise with which he runs every race. The next three years will be interesting! As with Patrick, we are excited to see how fast he will run before he graduates!
"Finally, a word on who wasn't at this meet - senior, Brett Shea. He certainly deserved to be there and would have been if not for an unfortunate back injury. After dealing with so many challenges over his four years, this year, Brett was finally able to put together months of consistent training and he came into the season in the best shape of his life! He started off by winning his race at our Cherokee Night of 3200s, dropping his PR in that event by over 15 seconds! Soon we discovered that his true talent lay in the middle distance events, the 800 and 1600 (and 400 when needed!). Through the season, he kept winning and, in the process, kept dropping fast times - 1:59.59 in the 800 . . . 4:22.3 in the 1600 (in a tactical dual meet race, kicking away from some good runners for a commanding victory). As good as he was running, he was really gearing up for Sectionals, Group States and the MOC. He was ready and the Cherokee record books were about to take a big hit! The back injury seemed to come out of nowhere but it was severe, making running pretty much impossible. Brett did all he could to heal but it just would not relent. Had he been able to run, we have no doubt that these last three meets would have been epic! Although terribly disappointed, Brett handled this setback with maturity and grace. He still had a season to be proud of and he now heads off to Hofstra University even more motivated to show what he can do. We all wish him the best and we can't wait to see what he does over the next four years!
Thank you all for a great season!
Here are a few pictures from the meet! The last six are from professional photographer Tom Smith's collection posted on NJ.MileSplit! Thanks Tom!
All of the pictures from the meet are available at the District's Google Drive.
As expected, NJMileSplit has way-over-the-top coverage of the meet!
On June 21, 2021, the Boys and Girls teams met at a local swim club to celebrate their personal and team accomplishments! That always seems like a cool idea unless you're as skinny as an Ethiopian marathoner -- wait, who said that?! -- and if it doesn't rain!
OK, it rained. The good news: no one had to worry about re-applying sunscreen!
The coaches hurridly announced the "MVP" Awards between raindrops:
MVP Sprints/Hurdles - Chima Opara: Top 100, 200 runner and also Long Jumped and High Jumped!
MVP Field Events - Zach Palfy: Top dual meet point scorer - Pole Vault, Long Jump, Triple Jump, 5th in PV at SJ Group 4 Championship - qualified for the Group 4 State Meet!
MVP Distance - Brett Shea: 2nd highest dual meet point scorer, All-County 800 runner, All-Conference 1600 runner, top 400 split on team - 50.4, top 800 time - 1:55.59, 3rd fastest 1600 (4:22.3) and 2nd fastest 3200 (9:30.42) on team. Would have run faster in 1600 if not for season-ending back injury!
Unsung Chief - Chris Brandreth: Top 110 and 400 hurdler on team, 3rd place finisher in County Championships - 59.78!
Rookie of the Year - Nick Kuenkel: 2nd in County 3200, 4th - SJ Group 4 3200, 8th - State Group 4 3200, 11th - MOC 3200! Freshman School Record holder and fastest Freshman in state by 16 seconds: 9:27.73 for 3200! Only Freshman in a distance event at MOC! Also Freshman School Record holder in 800 - 1:59.8!
That said, thanks to Coaches Hoffman, Shaklee, Thompson and Viscity for their dedication and expertise this season; and special thanks to Cherokee's Athletic Director, Mr. Scott Agnew, who appreciates the sport and the work it involves much more than most AD's; and to the parents for the help they gave the team and coaches during this unusual virus-affected season!
Best wishes to all our athletes! We sincerely thank our graduating seniors for their work, leadership and performances, and we hope to see them soon, competing at the next level! Also, we look forward to seeing our undergraduates return even stronger next year to continue the exceptional history of Cherokee Track and Field!
For grins, we took a quick look-back in our archives for our graduating Seniors who were on the team as Freshman! Here are a few that we found . . . and, yeah, there are more of the distance twosome but that's because Coach Shaklee had a "get tough or die" philosophy back then and he raced them a lot!