NB Grand Prix: Engels and Pierce Steal the Show


The energy was palpable Saturday night at the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston, Massachusetts as a handpicked field of elite athletes thrilled the capacity crowd with photo finishes and mid-race drama.  But, you are bound to get some amazing races when you take a group of high school athletes, put them in a room with their idols, pack a building full of over 4,000 fans, and then turn on the TV cameras.

The girl’s mile got off to a slow start with the pack splitting 39 seconds for the first 200m, and then a virtual unknown bolted to the lead and the race was on. 

Cayla Hatton of Philips Academy (Andover, MA) entered Saturday with a modest resume among high school athletes in Massachusetts.  It’s not because she lacks talent, rather, it’s because she attends a private school that does not compete in MIAA sanctioned events.  Hatton caught the eye of meet officials when at seventeen years old she won the New England Club Cross Country Championships; beating a very talented field of athletes with vast amounts of collegiate experience.

Hatton was not intimidated that day, and she would not be intimidated at the New Balance Grand Prix. 

After the slow fist lap, she broke from the field by almost 75 meters and would remain the lone pace setter for the majority of the race.  After splitting 73 seconds for the first 400m, 2:24 for the half mile, it looked like she might run away with the race.  It was at that point that the pack realized she was a legitimate threat and began to feel a sense of urgency.

Haley Pierce (Tatnall, DE) led a chase pack with Wesley Frazier (Raleigh, NC), Kelsey Margey (Locust Valley, NY) and Megan Moye (Cosby, VA) in tow.  There appeared to be a collective understanding that time was running short, so Pierce launched an aggressive move with three laps to go.  Beginning to tie-up, Hatton was caught at the bell lap, and Pierce shifted gears to run away from the field in the final 200m.  She would get the win in 4:48.59, and a very tenacious Hatton would dig deep to hold off Frazier (4:51.37 to 4:52.18).  Margey, who ran 2:49.98 in the 1000m the night before at the New Balance Collegiate games, finished 4th in a very respectable time of 4:52.83.

The boy’s mile was just as exciting and the group appeared to learn quite a bit from their female counterparts.  Contrary to the race before them, the boys would remain bunched and keenly aware of the gaps forming around them.

Joel Hubbard (Marshfield, MA), Tim Ball (Piscataway, NJ), and Craig Engels (Pfafftown, NC) led the group to a 66 second split at 400m and would remain in that order until Tom Awad (Chamanade, NY) made an aggressive move just after the 800m mark.  Awad’s change in pace dropped Hubbard to 5th, and it looked like he would blow apart the field with his strength.

Ball and Engels responded quickly after the initial shock of the new pace, and the duo regained the lead. From there, it was Engels that would control the remainder of the race as he gapped the field and crossed the finish line in 4:13.70. 

The pack behind him would fight to the end, with five athletes finishing in under a second.  Hubbard led a charge down the final 50 meters to capture second (4:14.35), and was followed by Thomas Graham (4:14.75), Tom Awad (4:14.85), and Marshfield teammate Kevin Thomas (4:15.15).

Looking to play off of the Massachusetts vs. New York rivalry in this weekend’s Super Bowl match-up, the meet officials added a team scoring component to the relay races.  Each event would be scored like a cross country race and bragging rights would be won based on the composite score of the top four teams from each state.

The novel idea added some excitement to a race where the St. John Villa team from New York (Villabears TC) dominated from the gun.  They cruised to an easy win in 3:57.88, and second place Staton Island Gators TC helped their New York team cause by finishing second in 4:03.14.

But then the Massachusetts teams began to flood the finish line.  Acton-Boxborough (4:04.03), Mansfield (4:07.46), Weymouth (4:07.65), and Notre Dame Academy Hingham (4:07.89) took the next four spots and gridlocked the team battle at 18 points. 

The boy’s 4x800 meter relay did not need a team score to create drama.  In fact, many in the crowd thought this race was the most compelling event of the day.

Acton-Boxborough TC got out early and put their foot on the gas behind a very aggressive lead off leg by James Sullivan.  He would hand off to teammate Brian Sommers in the lead, and the junior sprint star would show tremendous grit in his effort to move up in race distance and hold off an incredibly talented field.

A storm was brewing back in the field as Joe Vercollone took the baton in sixth place and began to bridge a huge gap to the main field.  Vercollone showed little signs of fatigue from his 2:27 effort in the 1000m less than 24 hours prior at the New Balance Collegiate Invitational, and he stormed through the pack with a 1:55 split to give Wes Gallagher the baton in third.

Fresh off a win at the U.S. Open the previous week, Kellenberg (Firebird TC) entered the meet as the pre-race favorite, and they would live up to that billing as they entered the final lap with what looked like a comfortable lead.  But Gallagher had other ideas.

The senior leader of the Titans barreled past Tim Cox of Acton-Boxboro and was closing in on the lead, but the tremendous team effort of Kellenberg was too much to overcome.  Despite his 1:57 split, Gallagher would cross the line in second (7:55.86), just a fraction away from a heroic win.

 “The first lap I caught up with the pack and tried to hang with them as long as I could.  Just couldn’t outkick them.”

Kellenberg moves to US#3 with the win (7:55.67), Pembroke is US#4, and Acton-Boxborough is US #8 (7:57.60).

It’s not often when you can make headlines for finishing last, but even the back of the pack moves fast when you are a high school athlete running in the professional section of a major event.  Ajee Wilson of Neptune High School (NJ) surpassed her own US#1 time of 2:09.09 by finishing 6th among the international field in 2:07.37.  For Wilson, the place is of little consequence, it’s all a stepping stone to bigger goals. “My major goal is to go to the World Juniors and take home gold.  These meets just help me prepare for that.”   

Wilson prepared for this meet with a win last week at the U.S. Open at Madison Square Garden, and will try to make it three in a row when she competes next weekend at the Millrose Games.


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