Jeffrey Chen, Nikhil Makker, Anish Agrawal, Virat Vishwanadhula, Neil Deshpande, Steven Chi and Jacob Ferrer

Members of the High School North boys’ cross country team display their plaque after winning the team’s second consecutive Mercer County meet on Oct. 22, 2021 at Washington Crossing Park. Pictured are Jeffrey Chen (left), Nikhil Makker, Anish Agrawal, Virat Vishwanadhula, Neil Deshpande, Steven Chi and Jacob Ferrer.

The tradition is rich with the West Windsor-Plainsboro North cross country program, but nothing has ever surpassed what the Northern Knights did at this year’s Mercer County Meet.

When WW-PN invaded Washington Crossing Park Oct. 21, it did so with a purpose. When the dust cleared, West Windsor had a team title and two individual champs for the first time ever.

The boys not only won their second straight team crown (there was no meet last year due to Covid-19), they also had their first individual champ in 11 years when senior Anish Agrawal came across in 15:36, slightly less than six seconds ahead of senior teammate Nikhil Makker.

And the girls produced their first individual winner in school history when freshman Zui Chinchalkar cruised the course in 18:46.

“A great day,” veteran coach Brian Gould said. “Very exciting.”

In so many ways.

Let’s start with the boys meet, in which the Knights defeated Princeton by just one point, 52-53. North did so by taking three of the top four spots (with WW-P South junior Ayush Saran taking third), and then having senior Virat Vishwanadhula finish 17th (17:03) and junior Neil Deshpande take 28th (17:26).

But perhaps the biggest key was senior Jeffrey Chen, who claimed fourth in 15:54.19 to just eke past Princeton’s Andrew Kenny (15:54.47).

“Coming in the last half-mile, Virat passed a guy, Neil passed a runner in the last 50 meters or so, which helped,” Gould said. “What I found out after the meet was that Jeffrey and (Kenny) were neck and neck and Jeffrey was able to win that race-within-the-race for fourth. If that doesn’t happen, we lose by a point. That meet was separated by about a quarter of a second.”

Further proving Gould’s point that although cross country is a lot of individualism, it is still a team sport. While no one knew it at the time, Chen’s doggedness helped lift the entire team to a title.

Of course, the other guys had a little something to do with it. Agrawal was the fourth Knight to win an individual title overall and the first since Jim Rosa in 2010. Every runner ran their personal best, including Jacob Ferrer (18:08) and Steven Chi (18:13), who finished 47-48th.

Agrawal, Makker and Chen all had Top 10 finishes as sophomores in 2019 and elevated to Top 5 slots this year.

“Every runner had their best effort, which is uncommon,” Gould said. “They ran so great, man, it was awesome. Ten days prior Princeton beat us comfortably (in the CVC Colonial Division meet). Anish was home sick that day. In the last week we’ve had stomach things and colds and all kinds of stuff, and it seemed like we’d never have everybody race on the same day.

“Fortunately that all cleared out about a week ago. I’m sure Anish had some extra adrenaline. He missed the division championships and he ran great.”

It didn’t stop there.

“In particular, Virat really rose to the occasion,” Gould continued. “And Neil is a junior, but it’s his first year running at all. He never ran cross country or track for us and he had a great race that day.”

Making it extra special is that WW-PN repeated as champion, which is difficult to do in a talent-laden MCT. Whether North would have won it last year remains to be seen, but as the saying goes, it is what it is and WW-PN is champion for the second straight county meet.

“It’s an honor, because it really is hard to win there,” said Gould, now in his 20th year as Knights coach. “Sometimes I think we go from counties to sectionals and it’s almost a relief because it’s a little easier. Princeton is a great team every single year and we had all those years when West Windsor South was a fantastic team; Lawrenceville Prep will have good teams; Hopewell Valley finished in the top six in the Meet of Champions not too long ago.

“The cool thing about that is those three guys finished high (two years ago), but besides that, it’s a very different team. Those other guys were either freshmen, or not on the team, or junior varsity. So after the first three they’re different people than they were two years ago.”

As for the three holdovers from 2019, Gould praised their work ethic last year, as the trio would do workouts together or as individuals just to remain in some kind of a groove.

“They never stopped, and I think there’s two things happening there,” Gould said. “One is, consistency leads to confidence and these guys are three of the most consistent kids I’ve ever had the pleasure of coaching. And there’s also a little bit of extra hunger because this county championship is something they had to wait two years to compete in again.”

Gould admitted he was unsure if his team had won once the final five came across for his team and Princeton. But, whatever the outcome, he knew he was happy due to the effort North gave.

“I had a good feeling after the race; and that may have really just been because they all raced so bravely and they were so courageous and so competitive,” Gould said. “As coaches that’s what we look for -- to just leave everything out there, whether they won or lost by a point, I couldn’t imagine being any more proud of them.”

The same goes for Chinchalkar, whose effort ended some years of frustration for the Knights girls.

Two years ago, Callia Cadasco ran a tremendous race, only to finish second to Lawrenceville’s Charlotte Bednar, one of the nation’s top runners. Other years, the Knights had contenders but WW-P South had two of the best with Katie and Caroline Kellner, the sister tandem that ran for Cornell.

Finally, a ninth-grader made history.

“We all definitely thought she had it in her,” said Gould, who coaches the Knights with Warren Gerstacker and Liz Guarini. “She’s a very talented kid, very coachable, very brave in the way that she competes. Being a freshman she was nervous before the race started but she’s a competitor. When she got moving she came up that hill the first time, which is about halfway through the race. She had a pretty big lead, she looked pretty confident, so I think at that point, you could see she would hold that lead.”

Gould noted that while Chinchalkar does not necessarily look to run with the lead, she is aggressive and enjoys going fast and running hard. Unlike some young runners, who take a lead in a big meet and then let the magnitude of the moment get to them, Zui just kept plugging.

“She actually improved a minute from our last race,” Gould said. “We ran our divisional meet there 10 days prior. She dropped a minute over those 10 days. Her training’s been going really well. She’s not super experienced. Each race she picks up really valuable experience and she figured something out that day.”

Hopefully for North she will keep figuring things out in its next big meet, which is the Central Jersey Group III sectionals at Jamesburg’s Thompson Park Nov. 6.

“Zui is very aggressive, she likes to compete,” Gould said. “She’s gonna continue to be successful because she’s competitive, she’s confident, she’s in really good shape. And she’s brave.

“That’s been our big thing this year, be brave in competition, take risks, put yourself out there and test your limits. She’s really motivated to do most of those things. I don’t know what time or place she’ll finish with but I know she’ll be up there competing.”

As will the boys, who are concentrating on doing their best and letting results take care of themselves.

“You’re successful by kind of putting the blinders on and not being distracted and focusing on ‘How fast can I go from point A to point B?’” Gould said. “That’s where our focus is. Make an honorable effort, leave it all out on the course and the times and places and medals all work themselves out.”

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WW-P South sophomore Catherine Gobo had a strong race in the girls meet, finishing third in 19:26.92. Senior Jennifer Miller also had a Top-20 finish, taking 14th in 20:21.

Along with Suran, the Pirates had another Top-10 finisher as senior Shaurya Srivastava finished sixth in 15:57.