It was nail-biting time for Seneca in the last heat of the final event at the Group 3 state track and field championships on May 30 at South Plainfield.
With the title on the line, all coach Fran Siedlecki could do was hope her girls would run as fast as possible in the 4x400-meter relay.
Increasing the anxiety was a phone call Siedlecki received during the race from Heather McNamara, Seneca's throwing coach. Jessica Donoghue, the third seed in the javelin throw, got sixth place in a tiebreaker and scored a point.
Now it was up to Kayla Moody, Lindsy Horn, Mary Bohi, and Michelle Brown to bring home the trophy in a tight race with Neptune for the team title.
Neptune won the relay in 3 minutes, 55.40 seconds. However, Seneca won the meet by placing second in 3:55.66.
The final score was Seneca 541/2 points, Neptune 54 - the smallest margin of victory in meet history.
"It went down to the last 10 seconds when Michelle clinched second place in the 4x4," Siedlecki said. "This is the first time Seneca has won" the state crown.
The Golden Eagles have come a long way since the program started a half-dozen years ago, and Siedlecki, affectionately referred to as Coach Si by her assistants and athletes, receives high marks from them.
She is also The Inquirer's girls' track and field coach of the year.
Siedlecki, who brought a state championship to Shawnee in 1999, is known as tough, demanding, and strict. But she has a soft spot for the athletes and the sport.
"You take your kids to the limit - that's my philosophy," Siedlecki said. "The expectations are, no second-place here."
Yet the coach readily acknowledges that Seneca was second to Camden last season, when the Panthers were in Group 3.
"Camden set the tone for us," Siedlecki said. "They are a wonderful program. They helped us keep on going."
Siedlecki organized a "play day" in which the Camden team and coaches visited Seneca for a cookout and workouts.
Camden coach Avis Satterfield said her girls enjoyed the get-together so much that they call Seneca their sister school.
"We were excited for them to win Group 3 and they were excited for us to win Group 2," Satterfield said.
Satterfield added that the feeling at Seneca was: We love you, but we're glad you're not in Group 3.
The way in which Siedlecki reached out to her rivals is the same way in which she embraces her own team.
"She is different with every athlete," Brown said. "She has learned all of the personalities and knows how to deal with us.
"Coach Si works so hard. She loves track and field. She puts her heart into it. She cries at sectionals and states. We want to make her proud."
Bohi said Siedlecki is so competitive that everyone wants to perform well for her.
"Before a big meet, on a blackboard, she writes every event and what we can get," Bohi said. "It makes everyone think, 'I should [get a personal record] in this event because our team needs as many points as we can get.' "
McNamara, an assistant under Siedlecki since 1994, becomes emotional when discussing how athletes come to Coach Si before a race for reassurance and comfort.
McNamara also recalled when Siedlecki refused to give in to a Shawnee parent who wanted a varsity letter for her girl, who hadn't been showing up for practices.
"She's a tough cookie," McNamara said.
With a soft spot.