When Matt Nelson joined Barnegat's cross country team as a freshman, he wasn't as well received as one might expect of a standout athlete.

"I wasn't really liked by the seniors," said Nelson, now a junior.

Nelson hadn't done anything wrong. It was actually the opposite. Nelson was good.

Very good.

"My freshman year I got the team MVP. None of them liked that," Nelson said, laughing. "But when I started running, they really respected me more."

Now he looks back on his freshman year and finds the humor in the situation, understanding why the older runners might have felt the way they did.

"I understand why," Nelson said. "Because if a freshman came in now and took my spot, I'd be mad, too."

That's unlikely to happen, as Nelson has developed into one of the top runners in the state and The Press Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year.

Nelson took up running in sixth grade when he decided to quit soccer. His older sister, Jen Nelson, was a 2008 Barnegat graduate who went on to star in cross country for Ocean County College and Monmouth University. Jen Nelson suggested that her brother give running a try if he didn't enjoy soccer.

"At first I didn't like it," Nelson said. "Then I started to get used to it. Every season, I got better and better until I started to like it."

Joe Doviak started coaching at the middle-school level before taking over as Barnegat's varsity coach five years ago. During Doviak's final season coaching middle school, he noticed the potential in Nelson, who had just started running.

"I was trying to connect to the program from an early start," said Doviak, 31, of Point Pleasant. "I thought it would be beneficial, so I was on top of the kids at the lower level. Then (Nelson) started to create some waves at the middle-school level."

When Nelson got to high school, Doviak was ready to push him to succeed.

"Him coming in, I had some goals that I thought he could attain," Doviak said. "We sat down and discussed them, and his freshman year he really exceeded them."

After running well as a freshman, Nelson was hindered by a sore back and injured hip his sophomore year. He came into his junior year looking to exceed expectations again.

"I had to prove that I could win," Nelson said.

His first major victory came in the Division 2 race at the South Jersey Open on Oct. 9, when he finished the 5-kilometer course at Delsea Regional in 15 minutes, 50 seconds. His time was the fastest among all three divisions.

Next was the Ocean County Championships, where Nelson wanted redemption from his eighth-place finish the previous year on the 3.1-mile course. As a sophomore, Nelson led early in the race, but he cited his hip as a reason for slowing down and getting passed at the end.

This year, Nelson again rushed to the front, but he finished strong in 15:35 for the win.

"I did the same thing but held the field off this time," Nelson said. "It was my first county title. I remember freshman year and hearing how hard it would be, so this meant a lot to me. I proved that I could do it."

At the Shore Conference meet, Nelson finished fifth, 12 seconds behind winner George Kelly of Christian Brothers Academy.

Nelson used that race as motivation at the South Jersey championships, where he won the Group II race in 15:52 at Delsea Regional.

"I knew I had to come back after that Shore Conference race," Nelson said. "Winning South Jersey made me feel a lot better about (states) coming up."

With his renewed confidence heading into the state Group II championships at Holmdel Park on Nov. 12, Nelson did not disappoint.

He covered the 3.1-mile course in 16:19 and became the state Group II champion.

"Halfway through the race, I hit a surge and lost the rest of the field," Nelson said. "I felt like I had kind of proven myself."

The following week, Nelson set a personal best of 15:58 at Holmdel Park during the Meet of Champions, finishing 11th among 181 competitors.

But the ever-competitive Nelson already is looking toward next year for another chance at redemption.

"I'm going to hit lots of mileage over the summer and pick my speed up more," Nelson said. "I think all I lacked this year was weight lifting. I feel if I do that, it will help with the hills at Holmdel."

Doviak said if Nelson stays healthy and keeps training, it might be inevitable that he do well at the 2012 Meet of Champions.

"You're talking about him being in elite company next fall," Doviak said. "If he gets that mileage a little bit up, I think you'll see him somewhere between now and when he graduates with a state title."

Contact Jeff Sporer:

609-272-7210