Southern 4x400 Relay, Five Individuals Culminate Season at Meet of Champions

By DAVID BIGGY | Jun 12, 2019
Photo by: David Biggy Southern senior Caitlin Hambor zips toward the finish line to anchor the Rams’ 4x400-meter relay at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions on June 8, culminating her outstanding career.

Columbus — Blazing through the final 100 meters of her high school career, Caitlin Hambor heard the cheers from the crowd in the bleachers next to the track at Northern Burlington High School as she focused on her three Southern Regional 4x400-meter relay teammates awaiting her arrival at the finish line.

“Most of them weren’t cheering for me, but I kind of pretended they were,” said the Southern senior, mustering as much humor as she could in between gasps. “Going out with my relay team was exactly how I wanted to end my career. I just wanted to run as fast as I could for my last 400.”

The final result of the race at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions on June 8 wasn’t exactly the one Southern wanted – the quartet of Hambor, junior Karagan Bulger and freshmen Shannon Flaherty and Hailey Hochstrasser placed ninth overall in 3:56.63 – but it nonetheless was a special moment for the senior, who had been the anchor of this particular relay all season.

Competing in the final heat, in the last race of the meet, Bulger ran the initial leg of the relay and had the Rams barely in third place as she handed off the baton to Flaherty. The speedy freshman was run down and passed shortly after the handoff, but she maintained a torrid pace as she completed the second leg in fifth, handing off to Hochstrasser, who was far enough behind the fourth-place runner that all she could do was maintain her position. She did, and Hambor – some 12 meters behind the runner in front of her at the handoff – zipped around the first two turns and onto the backstretch by herself, with the same gap between her and the runner following her.

Hambor maintained the space, slightly closing the gap in front of her, and cruised through the final 100 without a threat. Once across the finish line, she collapsed into the arms of an already crying Bulger, before the arms of Hochstrasser and Flaherty completed the emotional group hug.

“I was nervous going into that last leg, because I knew there was a pretty good gap between me and the runner in front of me,” Hambor said. “I just wanted to close the gap as much as I could. And, yeah ... as I was running, everything from the past four years was replaying in my mind. As I got closer to the finish, I just thought how much I’m going to miss everyone. Not only was I successful in track, but I made a lot of friends.”

Bulger not only started the relay, but she also started the competition day for the local athletes in the second event of the day, the 400-meter hurdles. Sporting a cast on her left wrist – the result of a club soccer injury six days earlier – Bulger was tasked with trying to repeat the same feat she pulled off in last year’s finale, somehow securing a top-five finish from the unseeded heat.

“I put myself in a terrible position with my race last week, and then I fractured my wrist paying soccer later in the weekend,” she said. “I don’t like excuses. In my mind, I had a chance of winning this race, but the cast did slow me down a little and I needed to at least win my heat to have chance at doing what I did last year.”

The junior clocked a second (1:02.25) off her personal-best pace of 1:01.26, which she ran to win the Shore Conference championship several weeks earlier, but it wasn’t good enough to snag a top-five spot given the strength of the 400 hurdles field this year. She ended up ninth overall.

“I knew if I wanted to have a chance, I would have to be around my PR,” she said. “Everybody has improved since last year, and there are always a few new girls who rise up and do much better than the year before. So I knew the competition was tough. I’m just glad I’ll have next year to improve myself some more, and maybe next year I’ll be come back here and win it.”

That same mindset already is brewing inside the brains of the four other local girls competing in this year’s Meet of Champions – Pinelands junior Liz Makar, Barnegat sophomore Jillian Jankowski and Barnegat freshmen Madison Cappuccio and Valencia Gosser. Despite their fantastic efforts in the Group II meet a week earlier, they weren’t quite top-10 material on Saturday.

In the shot put, Makar didn’t mentally recover from a slip and near-fall on her second throw of the preliminary round, managing to toss her third attempt 37 feet, 11 inches – well off her personal-best mark of more than 40 feet – to finish 14th overall.

“First, I’m thankful I made it this far. This was a great opportunity for me, but it wasn’t the performance I wanted,” Makar said. “After I almost fell, I just psyched myself out. The learning experience for me is that I have to thrive under pressure, and that if I fall I need to get up and move on to the next throw. I have it in me to win this event. I just have to get my mindset right and get everything together at the right time.”

For Cappuccio, the Meet of Champions was a first step into a larger world. The Bengals freshman had to wait for most of the 36-competitor field to get through their first three attempts before she was called on for her first.

Nonetheless, she brushed off the cobwebs and cleared 5 feet, 2 inches on her second attempt, moving on to 5 feet, 4 inches with about a dozen other girls. The field whittled down to eight, including Cappuccio, who again cleared the bar on her second attempt, for 5 feet, 6 inches. That’s where the road ended for the Barnegat student. She clipped the bar with her left calf on her first attempt and failed on the next two as well, finishing 13th overall.

“I wasn’t thinking too much once I finally got to jump,” she said. “It took awhile, but I felt good. I made it this far and I knew it was going to be hard, but I’m really proud of myself and the season I had. Now, I’ll just work harder for next year.”

The same will hold true for Gosser, who undoubtedly was competing in the most difficult race to finish among the top of the field – the 100-meter dash. Still, Gosser took her place in the eighth lane of the third heat and made the most of it, clocking a personal-best time of 12.31 seconds to reset her school record. Once all the preliminaries and final were completed, she landed in 19th place.

“I’m glad I’m here. This is going to help push me,” Gosser said immediately after her race. “The girls here are really fast, and it’s exciting to be here as a freshman. I’m not sure exactly what I have to do to get better right now, but I’ll start with winter track next year and try to get better.”

As for Jankowski, Barnegat coach Rebecca Kane said the sophomore had not been feeling well and simply wasn’t her usual self for the Meet of Champions, finishing with a top distance of 15 feet, 7 inches in the long jump to place 28th overall.

“I feel bad for Jillian,” Kane said. “She was sick all week and she just couldn’t do what she normally does. She made it here and tried her best, but she just wasn’t in good shape to compete at her best level today.”

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