FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP — On the night before the biggest cross-country race of his high school career, Kevin Antczak slept like a baby.
The well-rested Mainland Regional High School senior easily won the South Jersey Group III championship Saturday morning. Antczak finished the 3.1-mile course at Delsea Regional in 15 minutes, 58.28 seconds, while Anthony Conte of Ocean City ran 16:41.11 to finish second.
“This is very rewarding,” Antzcak said. “This is something I really wanted to do this year. I got 11 hours of sleep, which is really good for me. I couldn’t think about the pressure. I just had to do what I do best.”
Antczak’s performance highlighted an outstanding day by Mainland and Ocean City runners. Ocean City sophomore Alexa Palmieri also won the South Jersey Group III title, while the Ocean City boys and girls both won Group III team championships.
“This is so exciting,” Palmieri said. “As I got closer to the finish line, it just got more and more exciting.”
The meet held on a sunny but windy day featured South Jersey’s top public school teams. The top 10 individuals and top five teams in each of the four South Jersey enrollment group races qualified for next Saturday’s state group championships at Holmdel Park (Monmouth County).
Antczak went to bed at 8:30 p.m. Friday. He woke up 7:30 a.m. Saturday. He had no trouble getting to sleep.
Mainland coach Dan Heyman said it was no surprise Antczak was so calm before the race.
“He just does his thing,” Heyman said. “He’s relaxed and focused. Compared to other guys, he’s totally mellow. He knows he did the work and just lays it out there.”
Antczak, who earlier this fall won the Atlantic County and Cape-Atlantic League championships, jumped to a quick lead and was never challenged.
“I just felt good immediately,” he said, “and I just started working on (creating) a gap from the get go.”
A number of Ocean City runners chased Antczak to the finish. The Red Raiders won their sixth sectional title overall but first since 2010 by outscoring second-place Mainland 23-49.
“It’s a rich history,” Conte said of Ocean City’s cross-country tradition. “It feels good to get us back in there. I’m just super proud of the guys today.”
Ocean City couldn’t have run much better as a team. A perfect cross-country team score is 15. The Red Raiders had five runners finish within 13.12 seconds of each other.
“We’ve been running as a tight pack ever since (the Cape May County championship),” Conte said. “I knew coming into this race we would be running together.”
In addition to Conte’s second-place finish, Luke Kramer (third in 16:44.06), Gavyn Fox (fifth in 16:44.60), Max Kelly (sixth in 16:46.44) and Tyler Greene (seventh in 16:54.23) scored for Ocean City.
The team title had some extra meaning for the Red Raiders because it came over Mainland. The schools are rivals in every sport. Mainland beat Ocean City in a dual meet earlier this season. Ocean City edged Mainland by one point at the Cape-Atlantic League championships Oct. 25.
“We’ve just been fighting as a family,” Conte said of the Red Raiders. “When you run together, you know if one guy slacks a little bit, the other guy will pick you up to help you get through the race.”
Palmieri used the same strategy as Antczak. She built an early lead and was never really threatened. Palmieri finished in 19:22.58, and Emma Klouchek of Seneca finished second in 19:35.46.
“I knew if I got out there fast and (created) a gap, it could be a good day,” Palmieri said. “I think I’m better being chased than chasing people down. I didn’t know how far ahead I was. I just knew keep going faster.”
Palmieri’s effort propelled the Red Raiders to their second straight South Jersey Group III championship and their 10th sectional title overall.
This championship was a bit unexpected because Ocean City graduated three of their top seven runners from last year’s team.
“That’s not always an easy transition when you lose your top runners,” Ocean City coach Trish Henry said.
Ocean City also got strong efforts Saturday from Rebecca Millar (fourth in 19:50.70), Casey McLees (fifth in 19:52.09), Brooke Farr (seventh in 20:05.87) and Kailey Grimley (25th in 22:02.71). Ocean City outscored second-place Mainland 40-59.
“All of the (current) girls by watching those before them know the work ethic (necessary for success),” Henry said. “Alexa (Palmieri) and the other girls put in a lot of time this summer and tried to train the way they learned from those that graduated.”
Other Press-area individuals and teams to qualify for state group championships:
Individuals: Olivia Schafer, EHT, seventh in 19:29.85
Teams: Southern Regional (fourth)
Individuals: Lillian Sarno, Barnegat, fifth in 20:22.98; Bianca Savoy, Barnegat, ninth, 21:00.42
Teams: Pinelands Regional (second), and Cedar Creek (Fifth)
Individuals: Hailey Carano, Buena, ninth in 21:30.98
Individuals: Leo Zaccaria, Cape May Tech, sixth in 17:14.77
Individuals: Jensen Nunez, Pleasantville, ninth in 16:39.03
Teams: Cumberland Regional (fifth)
Teams: Absegami (fifth)
Individuals: Gobi Thurairajah, EHT, ninth in 16:25.11