By CHRIS CHRISTOPHER
Ocean Township High School girls cross country coach Paul Looney said at the start of the season he was hopeful for big things from Michela Cholak.
“She is our number one runner,” he said. “She should have a great senior season.”
Cholak has delivered for the Spartans, pacing the team to wins in four of its first seven dual meets.
She ran the 12th-fastest time in school history at hilly Holmdel Park. She has run the second-best time in school annals at Thompson Park in Jamesburg. And she has run 19 minutes at Ocean County Park in Lakewood.
“She is great,” Looney said. “She has a lot of range as she also competes in track. She is talented, but she is also an extremely hard worker. She has a second degree black belt in karate. She is a real motivated athlete who pushes herself. She is a very natural runner.”
Cholak finished first in five of her first seven dual meets. She also competes in the 800-meter run, 4×400 and the 400.
“She will definitely run in college,” Looney said. “She is looking at several possibilities. I told her not to choose college too early as she will have a great senior year. I don’t want her to close down her options.”
Senior Erica DiNapoli is the team’s second runner.
“She is one of the hardest workers I have ever coached,” said Looney, the Spartans’ 20th-year coach. “She has been a solid competitor for four years. She has always been in the mix. She has been in our top seven for all four years. She has a great work ethic. She will do everything possible to make herself the best runner she can be. She does all of the little things like going on a long run one day per week. She will go eight or nine miles in the seven-minute range.”
Another swift Spartan is sophomore Sarah Etter, who is on the school’s top 25 list at Holmdel Park.
“She is a real good athlete who is trying to be more consistent,” Looney said. “That is her goal and she wants to stay injury free going forward. Her goal is to keep Michela in site as much as she can.”
Junior Gabby Latzsch and freshmen Emily Dorony and Bella Downs have also impressed.
“Emily and Bella have been in the top five in most of our meets,” Looney said. “Gabby works hard and is trying to be in our top five. I always try to preach, ‘The closer our pack is, the better we are as a team.’ She is trying to get closer.”
Senior Morgan Rue has been slowed by a back injury, but hopes to return to action later this season.
“She is pushing toward the big meet season,” Looney said.
The Spartans will compete in the Monmouth County Championships on Oct. 20 at Holmdel Park.
“I look for us to finish in the top 10,” Looney said. “That would be a good goal. Monmouth County is very strong. If we keep improving, I think a top 10 finish will be great.”
Early in November, Ocean will step to the starting line in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III Championships at Thompson Park.
“That is a really tough section,” Looney said. “I would love to see us place in the top five and qualify for the Group III meet. I would love to see Michela qualify for that meet as an individual (the top five teams and top 10 individuals from each section will qualify for the Group III meet in mid-November).”
The Spartans have also received contributions from seniors Erin Foster, Melissa Nieves, Karli Hill, Remi Cros and Bailey McGovern, sophomore Emily Nelson and freshman Elizabeth Appoy.
“I have gotten the chance to coach great kids,” Looney said. “Coaching cross country is a great way to spend the fall. It is a beautiful sport. The coaches for the most part get along. You get out of it what you put into it. Most of the coaches are friends. We share ideas. It’s all about making the kids the best they can be. That is what it ultimately boils down to.”
Ocean’s home course is Holmdel Park where it also trains.
“Our girls have a love-hate relationship with it as it is a brutal course,” Looney said. “Everyone always talks about the bowl, but I feel the first mile is the toughest part of the course. It is almost completely uphill and the mile in the bowl is flat and downhill. The lone uphill part in the bowl is about a minute long. The uphill mile in the bowl is about 1 3/4 miles from the starting line. That is why everyone talks about the bowl. You are kind of shot at that point. After that, the course is either flat or downhill.”
Looney, 52, often trains with his team.
“The girls are funny about that,” he said. “They say at our banquet, ‘We can’t take it easy as he does the hardest workouts with us. ‘ I am sure they like it. I pace them. When they see me do it … I never ask them to do something I would not do myself. We average about five miles per day.”
Looney competes on the road racing circuit.
“I am trying to keep my streak of breaking 19 minutes for a 5K race alive,” he said. “I have two kids so my racing days are much more limited than they used to be.”
Some years back, Looney competed in the New York City Marathon.
“I ran 18 miles and received the experience without the pain,” he said. “I jumped into it at mile eight to help a friend finish it. You can’t finish the race without a number so that was it.”
Looney is a 1981 graduate of St. Rose where he competed in track. He made the University of South Carolina men’s cross country team as a walk-on.
“I was the seventh man down there,” he said. “I made the traveling team, but that’s about it.”
Looney is an Ocean assistant track and field coach in the spring, guiding girls and boys.