Lakeland Girls Cross Country: “Different,” “Unexpected,” and “Unpredictable”


Courtesy of the Lakeland Live Feed

The 2020 girls cross country team is one that will go down in Lakeland history, taking home a county and state sectional title.

A Season with Expectations

With a young core returning and many great additions, the 2020 Lakeland Regional High School’s cross-country girls team, coached by Coach Damiano Conforti, rose to become an eminent force in New Jersey this year.  

Captain Angelina Perez helped lead the team into many victories and set many records this season.

Last year, the girls saw a successful season, finishing with a first place finish in the conference and a second place finish in both the county and state section.  Their top 3 runners returned this year, led by captain and junior Angelina Perez and followed by captains and juniors Abigail Horevay and Caitlin Fahy.  In addition, junior Faith Norrell and sophomore Reaghan Lomascola would return from the previous year, adding on to the success.

While there was much uncertainty revolving around the COVID-19 pandemic, runners stayed focused on winning it all.  Horevay expressed how she prepared “for the worst, but hoped for the best.”  

The team clearly had goals in mind.  With her freshman season under her belt, Lomascola knew she wanted to improve from her first year, which she ended up accomplishing.  Perez explained, “we wanted to redeem ourselves from last year and win counties… as well as winning at state sectionals too.”  Perez also looked to claim titles at the conference, county, and sectional meets.

Starting Off Strong

October 3 marked the first time the athletes would run in competition since the last winter season.  The girls opened strong at the Season Opener Invitational at Garret Mountain.  They absolutely dominated the competition.  Perez took first, Horevay took second, and Fahy took third.  To add to this blow out, Norrell finished in fifth, Lomascola finished seventh, and freshman Kayla Barnhardt finished eighth.  Perez achieved an incredible mark by running 17:58 on the course to start her 2020 campaign to the top of the nation.  Horevay also broke the 20 minute mark, running a 19:32.  The team easily took first, with an average top 5 time that was two minutes and thirty seconds faster than any other team that day.

After establishing themselves as competitors on the state level, the team competed at the Big North – Division C Batch meet at Darlington Park on October 5.  Once again, they demolished the competition, with three runners running under 20 minutes, and placing their top six in the top ten.  Perez ran an incredible time of 16:56 to take first in the meet, while also breaking the course record.  Horevay took second running 18:49 and Fahy took fourth running 19:43.  Norrell (20:53), Lomascola (21:41), and Barnhardt (21:52) all finished in the top 10.  To add to that, junior Paige Tojeira wasn’t far behind, running a 23:16 and taking seventeenth place.

On October 10, the girls ran at the Back to the Mountain Invitational at Garret Mountain.  Perez lowered her own course record to 17:52 en route to another victory.  Horevay ran 19:27 while taking third and Fahy ran a 20:28 while taking fifth.  Norrell also placed top 10 with a 22:12.  The team, rounded out by Lomascola and Barnhardt, easily took the gold again.  

At this point, had the team ranked second in all of North Jersey, behind only Ridgewood.  The team continued to prove themselves as worthy competitors on the state level and was placed in the top teams of New Jersey.  However, the team’s progress in the public eye would come to a screeching halt, as Lakeland Regional High School shut down due to COVID-19 related issues.

An Unexpected Hiatus

The team described their coaches as helping them prepare mentally and physically for a season that would be fragmented by the pandemic. (Courtesy of the Lakeland Live Feed)

Due to COVID-19 related issues, the team would now miss a plethora of meets, including the Big North – Division C Championship, where the girls would surely win the Independence division for the second year in a row.  Athletic competition and practices would be shut down until October 26.

There was much disappointment when the conference meet had to be sat out on.  Lomascola expressed that if she could change one thing about the season, it would be getting that meet back.  Horevay said, “…we knew we’d come in first place.”

The bad news continued as distance learning and athletic closure extended until November 9.  This would take away even more meets from the team that was shaping up to be the most decorated girls XC team in Lakeland history.  Horevay expressed some of the difficulty.  “It was really hard not knowing what the season was going to be like because all my training could be for nothing if we didn’t have any meets.”  However, the school allowed athletics to come back on October 31, and the team would get two meets back.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the unprecedented time, the girls still kept working hard.  Lomascola explained that “our team needed to get the job done, even if it was on our own.”  She explained that they had to keep running because the season wasn’t officially over.

No Slowing Down

The team came back stronger than ever after having to miss a meet and many practices due to a COVID related shut down. (Twitter)

The first practice the team had together was on October 31.  The Lou Fraulo XC Invitational was on November 3.  This quick restart did not phase the team one bit, as they easily won the meet.  Perez ran her fastest time at Garret Mountain (17:29) and broke the course record by over ten seconds.    She said she treated every race as if it were her last because another situation such as the shutdown could occur at any time.  Horevay (19:26), Fahy (20:41), Norrell (21:54), and Lomascola (22:22) all finished in the top ten.  This meet featured Passaic County teams and was used to determine the champion for the county, as no true country meet could be held this year.  The team did not disappoint and they brought home a well deserved championship.  According to Coach Conforti, this was the team’s first ever county championship.

The North Jersey Finale on November 7 brought together the top teams in North Jersey.  The team lived up to their expectations and ranking.  Perez lowered the course record to 17:21 that day, while, once again, cruising her way to victory.  Horevay also placed sixth with a time of 19:44 and Fahy placed twelveth with a time of 20:17.  Norrell and Barnhardt rounded out the top five that day on their way to a second place finish out of 11 teams.  Coach Conforti explained they took second place behind the Ridgewood team that was nationally ranked.

The final time that the team would run at Garret Mountain was at the NJSIAA Sectionals – North 1 Group 2 meet.  The team was looking to win a state sectional for the first time ever.  Perez won the meet for the second year in a row, this time lowering her time by a whole minute to 17:31.  Horevay ran 19:50 and took fourth.  Fahy ran 20:36 and took ninth.  The team easily took first place and enjoyed a police escort and parade on the bus ride down Ringwood Ave.  Coach Conforti said that this was the first ever sectional victory for the girls.  

Horevay said that the escort was her favorite memory from the season.  Lomascola, who did not even get to experience the escort due to a lacrosse tournament, still explained that the day was her favorite memory because she “realized all the hard work had finally paid off.”

The End Game

That wasn’t the end for the competition.  Perez qualified for the Virtual XC Nike National.  She ran the Lakeland home course and finished in 16:39 without any competition to push her.  Her incredible time topped all of the times posted and she won the meet.  In addition, Coach Conforti mentioned that this was the “fastest time ever run in NJ for a XC race.”

The girls had one last meet as a team.  They had been invited to participate in the Holmdel Invitational.  This meet featured many of the best teams in all of New Jersey.  In addition to the teams, many of the top runners were invited to run without a team.  Perez placed second running a 17:36.  

At the Holmdel Invitational, Horevay also finished in the top 25 with a 19:45.  The girls finished seventh at a course they didn’t run at all year.

Angelina Perez

Perez won the Virtual XC Nike National, running NJ’s fastest time ever. (Courtesy of the Lakeland Live Feed)

Angelina Perez had a phenomenal season on her own.  According to Coach Conforti, she is in the running for Gatorade Runner of the Year, and she won the Nike National Runner of the week in October.  She was also named the NJ State Runner of the Year.  While breaking two course records, she collected First Team All-Conference, First Team All-County, First Team All-State, and First Team All-American accolades.  

Closing Remarks

The season was definitely one to remember.  It was very successful and very different from any other season.  

The team was obviously decorated.  Besides the team awards and all of Perez’s achievements, the team had lots to celebrate.  Click here to see All-County and All-League honors.  On top of it all, Coach Conforti received Passaic County Coach of the Year.

Many runners explain how the coaching helped the team perform even better.  Lomascola explained, “All the hard workouts really do help us a lot.”  Horevay, while noting the workouts, also explained that the coaches “were very encouraging and kept pushing” them.  

Perez took another perspective, saying they helped both physically and mentally.  She explained, “This sport also takes a lot of mental strength and that is something many people are really struggling with during the pandemic.  Our coaches did a really good job at keeping us motivated and positive even during these uncertain times.”

The season was definitely disappointing in some ways but it was also an enormous success.  Perez summed it up in one word: “unexpected.”  Horevay called it “different,” and Lomascola said it was “unpredictable”.

The team will not relent next season either.  Perez, Horevay, Fahy, and Norrell are all juniors and will return next season.  Lomascola is only a sophomore and Barnhardt is only a freshman.  Both Lomascola and Horevay hope for a more regular season next year.  While that may not be guaranteed, runners are still extremely optimistic about the future.  

Lomascola said, “Our entire team will be coming back next season, so I feel we will be very successful!” 

Perez believes the next season will go very well.  She remarked, “As a whole the team improved so much from last year and I feel like we are just going to continue to grow and improve over the rest of this year as well.”  

Perez, along with the rest of the team, look forward to proving themselves even more.