The Royals have always risen to the occasion, and the boys’ track and field team hopes their efforts this year on the state stage will be no exception.
Despite missing the entire spring season with an Achilles tendon injury, Port Jefferson standout James Burke — and two of his fellow Royals — placed in the Section XI individual championships and state qualifier on their home track last Friday and Saturday, to advance to the state championship this weekend at the University at Albany.
“It was devastating to lose James this spring season,” Port Jefferson head coach Rod Cawley said. “He’s the captain of the team and one of the best athletes in the state. But it’s quite an accomplishment to have three athletes competing this weekend.”
Although this season’s squad did not win any of the championships the Royals usually nab, like the league, division and county titles, the boys still finished the dual-meet season with a 5-1 record — dropping only their final matchup against Wyandanch, 79-59 — despite missing Burke, as well as junior Billy Witrock for a portion of the schedule.
Although he did not compete during the regular season, Burke placed second in the 1,600-meter, his signature event, at the qualifying meet with a time of 4 minutes, 18.39 seconds — only five-hundredths of a second behind Ward Melville’s John Ripa.
The Royal has finished that event as fast as 4:08.48, during the New Balance Nationals Indoor at the Armory in Manhattan earlier this year. The time made him the second-fastest miler in the country and earned him a silver medal.
“I give him credit for coming back and coming in second,” Cawley said about the qualifier. “The plan was to go out and try to take it easy to rest his tendon, but being the competitor that he is, there’s no taking it easy. He went from the back of the race all the way to the front in second place there, and then he moved to first for a little while, but he also got stepped on during the race — since [his Achilles] was injured anyway, that didn’t help.”
Burke spent a lot of time trying to heal following his injury, and slowly worked himself up to being able to run again.
“He goes around the neighborhood to people who have pools, and asks if he could swim,” Cawley said, laughing. “He’s been to four or five different pools in Port Jeff. … He likes to run in the water in the deep end to simulate running — not touching the bottom — and then he’ll swim laps to get some cardiovascular aspects of it.”
Also heading to states is senior pole-vaulter Alden Mohacsi, whose fourth-place finish at the qualifier was a new personal record, making the state bid that much sweeter.
“I’m definitely looking forward to states,” said Mohacsi, who has been on the team since he was a freshman. “I’m practicing every day and there’s been a lot of personal development. I’m going to do the best that I can this week to improve my form and I’m hoping to hit 13 feet this Friday.”
Junior Justin Julich had several successes of his own, competing in the 3,200 and 3,000 steeplechase.
On Friday, Julich hit a new personal record of his own in the two-mile run with a 9:48 — nine seconds better than his standard 9:57 — to finish eighth. Just hours after competing in the 3,200 the evening before, Julich ran a 10:16 in the steeplechase on Saturday to place seventh and qualify for states.
“It’s awesome to do really good at that high of a level,” Julich said. “Competing against the best guys in the county, it always helps to do your best in those kinds of situations.”
Julich is also looking to reach a new personal best in that event this Saturday, and his head coach said the runner has grown a lot over the years, aiding in his success.
“He’s come a long way,” Cawley said. “He was a little guy back in freshman year and now he’s going to be a team leader next year. He was exhausted Saturday morning. It’s a very difficult [double event] to do in 16 hours, but he didn’t complain; he went out there and did it. He knows he has to step up.”
Julich, Mohacsi, Parker Schoch and Alex Rebic also competed in the 4×800 relay in the state qualifier, finishing 12th in 8:50.
Looking ahead to this weekend, Cawley and his athletes are confident that they can be successful on the big stage.
“I think we have a pretty good chance to do very well,” the head coach said. “James is James; I know he will do well just because of his past. Alden is a tough competitor, and I think Justin has an opportunity to do well, too.”
Mohacsi said the program’s winning tradition has facilitated the athletes’ improvements.
“It’s been an absolute pleasure to be a part of this team and this program,” he said. “It’s built me up physically and mentally, and I’m really grateful for the super-talented and supportive teammates and coaches I’ve had. It’s inspired me to keep pushing myself beyond the best of my abilities; to work hard and give it 110 percent.”