The Wildwood Catholic High School girls cross country team has always been small but has still found big success over the years.
They finished with just one loss in dual meets for the third straight season.
Their only loss was to Cape-Atlantic League National Conference champions Buena Regional.
This year, the Crusaders lost to the Chiefs by just one point, 28-29, and finished in four of the top 10 spots.
The team has just nine runners and only five returning from last year. The other four members have never run cross country before this year.
"I've been dealing with this (a smaller team) for a while," head coach Michael Scythes said in a phone interview Wednesday. "I like coaching a small team; we get to spend more time with each girl and what they're trying to do individually. The girls are very close and it creates a lot of camaraderie."
Wildwood Catholic has a history of small teams, but with a powerful core to lead the way. Returning members include senior Grace Lederer as the No. 1 runner and junior Emily Johnson at No. 2.
Johnson recently broke Wildwood Catholic's new course record in 21 minutes, 25 seconds and took second in the girls Division I race at the South Jersey Open (20:20).
She has finished first in all but one dual meet this season.
Lederer has been a consistent No. 2 this year and has been a solid contributor since her sophomore year.
"We've been fortunate to maintain consistency from group to group as far as getting quality girls to come out for the team," Scythes said. "We've also been able to make sure the girls understand what needs to be done and are very committed."
Since Wildwood Catholic's conference champion team in 2006, when talented runners such as Tara Wuko and Chrissy Casiello were freshmen, the Crusaders have had at least two to four standout runners that have carried the success over from year to year.
Now Scythes is looking toward the juniors, twin sisters Katie and Delaney Wallace and Mackenzie Scully to carry on the tradition, along with Johnson, after Lederer graduates.
"They have all improved so much," Scythes said. "It's all about how hard you are willing to work and how bad you want it."
The other four include freshman Bridget Maxwell, a competitive swimmer who is adjusting to cross country nicely.
"Bridget has a good work ethic and has already improved by leaps and bounds," Scythes said. "She still has a little ways to go until she is very competitive, but she is trying very hard and we are very happy with her."
The Crusaders also welcomed three foreign exchange students this year, Melody Li and Christy Wang from China and Alina Genseche from Germany.
"We're so small you'd think that we wouldn't be as good, but all my teammates are really dedicated and our coach is just phenomenal and somehow he manages to make a great team every year," Johnson said.
Johnson also believes that Wildwood Catholic's unique course gives them a competitive edge.
The course, which starts and ends at the 17th Street beach in North Wildwood, was recently redone to help stabilize the beach from erosion. The new course now has even more beach on it than before.
"I really like our course and I was excited to take the record," Johnson said. "I like how you can see everyone and know where you're at. I think your home course has an advantage to begin with, but ours is sand and we practice in it a lot so it definitely helps us."
Like any small team, Wildwood Catholic has to put even more focus on staying healthy to be competitive.
The Crusaders plan on taking the rest of the season one race at a time and making a statement at the Cape May County and Cape-Atlantic League Championships. The team finished second to Ocean City last year at counties and hopes to improve on their seventh-place finish at the CAL race.
"It all depends on how well we run 1 to 5," Scythes said. "We know there is no margin for error. If we can run with Ocean City at counties, that should set us up well at the CALs to do something similar. Finishing in the top six would be a huge accomplishment for us."
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