By BRIAN CUNNIFF
After a few seasons of slowly building its program, the Lower Cape May Regional High School boys cross country team has taken a major step forward this fall.
Earlier this week, the Caper Tigers clinched the first undefeated dual meet season in program history and their first Cape-Atlantic National Conference title since at least the 1970s, if ever.
“For the kids, the season really has been exceptional so far,” said Lower Cape May coach Syd Peterkin. “They’ve really come together as a group. They look out for each other. They run together as a unit in the races.
“They’ve learned to work together and they’ve come together personally as well. You can see they really care about each other, and as they’ve come closer and closer to an undefeated season they’ve realized there’s something special here and it’s a real treat to see them experience it.”
Lower finished off its dual meet season earlier this week with an 18-39 victory over Buena. It was the team’s eighth win of the season in the conference, which also includes Cape May Tech, Cedar Creek, Holy Spirit, Middle Township, Oakcrest, Pleasantville and Wildwood Catholic.
Leading the way for the Tigers is senior Zeb Hinker, no doubt one of the best cross country runners in program history. Hinker won every dual meet race this season and last weekend placed first out of 99 runners in the Division 1 race at the South Jersey Open in Gloucester County. Last season, he finished fourth at the South Jersey Group II championships.
Hinker has been receiving significant interest from the college level, including Rutgers, where former teammate Will Berger now competes.
“Zeb’s been a shining light for our program,” Peterkin said. “He’s shown the other kids what hard work can do. The kids have really followed his lead and he has brought the rest of the boys along. It’s great to get that kind of talent in the program.”
Junior Jack Cura has been an outstanding No. 2 runner for Lower. He placed second behind Hinker in every dual meet race this fall.
Senior Elijah Jackson, the Big Five meet winner two seasons ago, and senior Jesse Coombs are the team’s third and fourth runners, respectively. Seniors Nate Stewart and Sean Murphy have traded places in various meets as the team’s fifth scorer.
Other runners on the team include juniors Eirnin Arnold, Dustin Nyguen, Justin Melli and Viet Vo and freshmen Connor Barikian and Bronson Goodavage.
Lower Cape May isn’t satisfied with its National Conference title. The team has set its sights on next Friday’s Cape May County Championships, a meet the program has never won as a team since the event’s inception in 1974. They could finally break that drought.
Lower also has a chance to qualify for the Group II state championship meet through a high finish at the sectional meet in early November.
“The kids are super excited about counties,” Peterkin said. “They’re excited about the chance to run there and they’re super excited about sectionals on Nov. 6. The kids are more excited about the postseason than they are about going 8-0.
“We’ve had a great experience so far. To see the smiles on the kids’ faces and the smiles on the parents’ faces, you can see how much fun everyone’s had so far. It’s not often that the cross country team gets recognized around the school and that’s been happening this year. I’m really proud of these kids. They’ve earned it. I’m glad they’ve gotten the opportunity to enjoy it at this kind of level.”