H.S. girls cross-country: Demarest wins a league title

MAHWAH – The cross-country season might start in September, but most say the dual meets held that month do not matter. Recently, some teams have even stopped fielding their top runners in these meets, preferring to focus on the postseason championship run in October and November.

But dual meets do matter.

There are two ways to win a Big North Divisional Championship: by winning the league championship meet or by going undefeated in divisional dual meets. Just as individual soccer games affect divisional standings, a cross-country league championship can actually be won on dual meets.

And that is precisely what Northern Valley/Demarest senior Leah Woods-Bannan thought about as she caught her breath after the last dual meet of the season.


It was a classic cross-country afternoon of many races at Darlington County Park and Woods-Bannan had placed second in the Old Tappan dual meet with a 20:36 5K. While she waited to hear whether her team won, she saw one of the team’s assistant coaches, Jennifer Capuzzo, walking towards her. Then, her teammates erupted in excitement.

“[Mrs. Capuzzo] just nodded her head and gave me a hug,” Woods-Bannan remembered. “I was so emotional because I knew how much we deserved that win. Everyone was running around hugging anyone on the team they could find. It was such an amazing feeling.”

The moment Woods-Bannan described was not an inconsequential instance of a single-meet win but the moment in which the Norsewomen finished their dual meet season undefeated and won the 2016 Big North National Divisional Championship.


At Northern Valley/Demarest coach Brendan Kenny led his teams to championship after championship but never in cross-country. Capuzzo, an English teacher at the high school and former head coach at Old Tappan, and Mike Ippolito, a former Norseman distance star and Class of 2016 graduate of TCNJ, joined Kenny for his first season of the fall sport.

Kenny, Capuzzo and Ippolito made the league championship the top goal for the season.

“I knew that I was going to inherit a team with talent,” Kenny said. “However, I challenged the girls in the late spring to win a league championship in the fall. We were led by our only senior, Leah Woods-Bannan, who matured as a runner at an amazing rate this season and became the perfect captain. The team put in an incredible amount of work and came into the season ready to improve. The girls continued to knock their times down throughout the early meets.”

Early on the Norsewomen beat a strong Pascack Valley team by just one point, an uncharacteristically close score for cross-country. The victory reinforced the girls’ efforts and Old Tappan suddenly seemed beatable too.


Woods-Bannan explained.

“We went into the Pascack Valley meet just hoping to do well and finding out we won it changed our mindset,” she said. “We continued to work hard in practice on distance days and in workouts. You could see how much the team was changing. Going into the Old Tappan meet, everyone was so nervous. We wanted to win so badly.”

Woods-Bannan’s finish behind Old Tappan’s Sari Abolafia was only the beginning of another tight team victory by two points. Though Old Tappan’s second and third runners finished before the second Norsewoman crossed the line, the next five finishers were from Demarest, and Demarest’s seventh and eighth runners came in before Old Tappan’s fifth.

The pack included junior Georgia Markham and sophomores Emily Cohen, Harley Nickl, Lola Gueguen, Sammy Gordon, and Maddy Song. Kenny also mentioned juniors Liza Pilzbury and Sophie Geisenheimer and sophomores Hailey Fitzpatrick and Valentina Rosso as being great team contributors.


Woods-Bannan reflected, “Having a team like this means the world, and I couldn’t be more grateful that I got to have this undefeated season my senior year.”

It was the team’s first Big North cross-country title ever and first league title in 16 years since the 2000 team won the NBIL Championship.