WESTFIELD, NJ — For the Westfield High School boys’ cross country team, the fall season marks a changing of the guard.

Westfield graduated six of seven varsity runners from a team that placed second in sectionals and fifth in Group 4 a year ago. Despite the turnover, Westfield’s expectations remain high.

“The ability is absolutely there,” said head coach Chris Tafelski. “When you have a very deep-seated group like we did last year, it’s harder for younger guys to break in. Really now it’s a matter of helping these younger guys.”

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Senior Will McGlynn, too, said the team will be building itself.

“Obviously we’re very different this year,” McGlynn said. “We’re definitely a younger team. In a lot of ways, we think that people don’t really look at us with the respect we think we deserve. We have to prove ourselves a little bit to everyone. It’s a step-by-step thing. Everyone’s improving, and that’s good to see.”

As the only holdover from last year’s varsity group, McGlynn constitutes the team’s veteran presence and leader. When it comes to advising the younger runners, McGlynn is making a concerted effort to focus on the essentials.

“They’re all really great runners,” McGlynn said. “So all I really do is just make sure that everyone remains calm, that we’re just having fun. We’re working hard, everyone’s competing and we’re going to have a good time doing it, no matter how much pressure there is. The main thing that I can teach anybody is just that you have to remember to stay where the roots are. Have fun, work your hardest and whatever the results are, that’s what they’ll be.”

Tafelski stresses that while the younger runners may not be seniors, they can still add meaningful contributions.

“The challenge is to demonstrate to them that they don’t need to wait to be high level kids,” Tafelski said. “Sometimes, kids set career goals like ‘When I’m a senior, I want to do this.’ Well, you don’t have to wait until you’re a senior to do great things. They don’t necessarily need to wait their turn and wait that long in order to be high level performers.”

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With McGlynn being the only returning varsity runner, Tafelski’s statement holds added merit. For Westfield’s runners, despite lacking experience at the varsity level, opportunities are there to be seized.

The truncated spring track season enabled Tafelski to take a more creative, unorthodox approach to the offseason. Whereas other programs continued practicing after the spring season was canceled, Tafelski opted for a complete shutdown. The team then re-started activities — which at that time consisted of logging runs on spreadsheets, Google meetups and workouts over Zoom — in the third week of May, a month earlier than typical.

“I felt like everybody just needed to hit the reset button,” Tafelski said. “One thing that I noticed was, in the absence of in-person coaching, a lot of the kids train too much, too hard. With really motivated kids and when you don’t have that outside set of eyes, it’s very easy for an athlete to overdo it. I noticed a lot of our kids were breaking down. If we had continued practicing, I knew we were going to be in a worse condition than if we hit the pause button, let everyone shore up and start building for cross country after that.”

In accordance with guidance from the NJSIAA, the team resumed a series of non-mandatory practices on July 14. While sessions are undoubtedly different — smaller groups, no full-team warm-ups, mask-clad coaches — things have unfolded smoothly thus far.

“Honestly, it hasn’t been as detrimental as I really thought it would be at first,” McGlynn said. “I was looking at the situation and I wasn’t sure what we were going to do. I thought our team culture would take a hit, because we just couldn’t see each other. But we’ve all done a good job of taking it as it comes, and the culture’s actually improved because we all rely on each other so much in a time like this.”

Currently, the team has reverted to online training as a part of the NJSIAA-instituted two-week mandatory dead period.

The season, meanwhile, is right around the corner, with an anticipated start date of Oct. 2. After a layoff unprecedented in length, the team is itching to get back to competition.

“We’re aiming high,” McGlynn said. “We’re just going to keep our heads up and go as high as we can go.”

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