Is it possible to simulate for students the eye-opening, transformative experience of international travel in a virtual format? Over Winter Break, Director of Global Education and Engagement Julia Dunbar and History Department Chair Dr. Megan Jones gave it a try.
She began coaching at Pingry in the fall of 2010, following some gentle coaxing by then-Athletics Director Gerry Vanasse, and when the time was right in her career. A position as assistant coach of the Girls' Varsity Cross Country Team, which she still holds to this day, was quickly followed by work with the track & field team—both indoor and outdoor—and head coach roles for the Middle School Track & Field and Cross Country Teams. Not counting weekend meets, which are known to drag on, she estimates she spends 25 hours a week on the Basking Ridge Campus, overseeing Middle and Upper School and practices. Fond memories abound, but one that will forever stand out, she says, is helping the girls' varsity 4x800-meter relay team advance to Indoor Nationals in February of 2018, and watching as they gutted their way to a blazing school record of 9:15.05, a ninth-place finish.
A leading collegiate and then semi-professional runner in the early days of the Title IX era, Mrs. Christensen has some pretty neat memories of her own: A New York City Marathon debut, which led to an Adidas sponsorship; several international appearances, including the first Women's International Marathon Championships in 1982 in Japan (she took eighth); and a qualifying ticket to the first ever women's Olympic Marathon Trials in 1984 (she finished five minutes behind Joan Benoit in a PR of 2:36)—all while launching a successful banking career, it should be noted.
What keeps her coming back to Pingry, season after season? "Coaching was always kind of a dream job, so I was lucky to have gotten the opportunity at Pingry. Considering what I went through in college—injuries and training mistakes—and my experiences running post-collegiately, I thought much of that could help me as a coach, and it has," she says. "I've been able to coach some phenomenal runners, but all the kids are special. To watch them go off and enjoy running in college, or maybe just for fun, that’s great. I hope the kids learn how to get what they want from running, to gain confidence from setting and achieving goals, and finally, to realize that it can be a lifetime sport."
Charlotte also plays lacrosse and soccer for the Middle School, and it's clear that her parents are a source of inspiration. In fact, they were both two-sport student athletes at Pingry, and, she says, have always urged her, whether she's on a JV or varsity roster, to try her best and put in her full effort. As she rattles off highlight moments that stick with her—scoring the winning soccer goal against Montclair Kimberley Academy in Grade 7; shuttling a pass to a less experienced lacrosse teammate who then scored; and, in ice hockey, defeating Delbarton in a nail-biting shoot-out—her full devotion is evident.
A club lacrosse and ice hockey player outside of school, Charlotte says playing for Pingry feels very different, special. "It feels more like a team—we all know each other, we are more connected to one another. When we score or pass we're all happy for and support each other." She's eager to continue her Big Blue spirit when she joins the Upper School ice hockey team as a freshman next year (she's still deciding on soccer and lacrosse). Having been invited, as a Middle Schooler, to practice with the team on occasion, she knows many of the players—and their styles—already, and she's excited to join them on the ice. She adds, "I have a lot I want to prove."
"Coaching is very similar to being in a classroom. . . you see in a concrete way the time it takes for someone to master a new skill," she says. "One kid is going to get it right away, another will need to see it in a different way, a third will want you to stand with her and do it a few times with your guidance. Coaching is a reminder of the different ways in which kids learn, and the excitement they feel when they master a new skill."
An insatiable athlete growing up, Margi, who joined Pingry in 2004 as a Spanish teacher, was a three-sport varsity athlete and captain in high school. At the University of Pennsylvania, she played Division I varsity lacrosse and club ice hockey (she served as the team's president her last two years). After a junior-year spent in Madrid, she returned to Penn her senior year and rowed crew. Having numerous teaching-coaching experiences, with stints at schools in Bainbridge Island, Pebble Beach, Virginia Beach, and Chicago, at Pingry, she has supported the lacrosse and field hockey programs from the Middle School to the varsity level.
The mother of three Pingry student athletes who pursue—or will, upon graduation—sports at the collegiate level, Margi has also managed to find time to coach her town's girls' lacrosse rec league for several years. She admires her mother's own athletic experiences, and champions the importance of sport for girls, in particular. "I think girls should play sports because it's fun, healthy, and encourages risk-taking. . . It is really a gift to be able to share that sort of experience with a bunch of high school kids who want to learn and challenge themselves. Perhaps what I love most is the laughter and connections made on the field."
When Peter, who plays for a club team in Princeton during the off-season, applied to Pingry in Grade 9, the very fact that the school offered a varsity water pool team was a big draw for him. After a year on the team, he hasn't been disappointed. "Coach really helped me to learn a new lob shot, which has been very useful in my games, as well as a pump fake."
Last March, he was one of 14 under-14 athletes in the Northeast "zone" selected by USA Water Polo to participate in the Olympic Development Team's National Championships in Riverside, California. "It was a really great experience for me to get to the next level," he reflected. "It's where I want to be eventually."
"I knew Ami [Gianchandani '18], Christine [Shao '19], and Ashley Lu '20 through summer tournaments and I'd heard so much about them—they were so good!" she remembers. "I was really intimidated at first, but it was great to play with better players. It was huge for the mental aspect of my game; they taught me so much. Before high school, I thought golf was just a hobby. When I joined the team in the Upper School, I knew it was a sport I wanted to play in college."
Speaking of which, Ami, who two years earlier was helping Zara with her chips and sand shot, is now helping her navigate the college admission process. "She taught me how to talk to college coaches, how often, and when. She even shared with me her inquiry emails to coaches from five years ago!" says Zara.
Most vivid among Zara's memories as a Pingry student athlete to date is when the team took gold at the 2018 Tournament of Champions, a sublime end to an undefeated season. Everyone played their best, she recalls, rattling off their scores: 70-70-79-80. "I remember Ami had said that if Ashley and I break 80 and Christine goes under par, she would jump in the course lake and yodle," Zara laughs. "She didn't end up doing it, but I remember that. We joked about her promise for two weeks leading up states! It's one thing to be a great player, like Ami, but it's another to inspire other people to become better."
Since joining the Pingry faculty in 2000, becoming Head Coach of the Boys’ Varsity Football Team in 2008, and Interim Head Coach of the Boys' Varsity Track Team in 2010, specializing in sprints and hurdles, Coach Shilts has gone on to guide dozens of Pingry student athletes to reach their potential. Many of his former players, runners, and sprinters have gone on to successful collegiate careers. And it's worth nothing that all current Pingry record-holders in the hurdles are boys or girls who learned the event from him.
Coach Shilts was, himself, a successful college athlete, as an outside linebacker and four-time varsity letterer for the College of Wooster’s football and track & field teams. After several teacher-coach experiences at independent schools on the East Coast and beyond (including the Bullis School, Maryland; Cranbrook Schools, Michigan; and The Hill School, Pennsylvania), he arrived at Pingry—a physically formidable football coach running rigorous practices while nurturing the talents of budding writers. For his impact in the classroom, he received the 2003 Herbert F. Hahn Junior Faculty Award and the 2005 Norman B. Tomlinson Chair in the Humanities.
Whatever came of that track & field season in 2004, when Coach Shilts and his father each had a star hurdler in competition? Jamil McClintock ’04—a 2015 Pingry Athletics Hall of Fame inductee, who went on to set records at Brown University—took top honors by winning the 110 high hurdles at the Meet of Champions that year. Old rivalries die hard.
“I had just made an assist to tie the game when I heard a pop,” he recalls. “I fell to the ground and knew something was wrong.” Six hours later, he was in the operating room to repair a stress fracture in his tibia and growth plate. He was disappointed to lose out on his freshman season, to be sure. But the lessons he learned through recovery were valuable ones. “Getting over the injury was pretty hard, but I learned how to be resilient,” he recalls. He attended home games when he could, but spent most of his time focusing on recovery and academics. He won’t soon forget how Assistant Coaches Wayne Paglieri and Jeff Patten visited him in the hospital before his surgery. Or how often Associate Head Coach David Fahey ’99 would stop him in the hallway at school to ask how he was doing.
Anthony looks forward to his comeback in the fall, and to reconnecting with his passion. “I’m a pretty quiet person; I let my soccer do the talking. When I’m on the field, I’m not thinking about anything else.”
She says the rigor of the two-hour practices, not to mention dedicated time in the Strength & Conditioning Center, have made her a better athlete. “I dreaded going to the weight room at first—the planks, neckercizes to protect from concussions, barbells, sprints—but I really grew to love the team lifts every Tuesday and Thursday from 3:00–4:00 p.m. I love being all together.”
As for future athletic goals, Sandra, a shooting guard on the Girls’ JV Basketball Team, wants to score as much as possible, and perhaps even hit 1,000 career points and a spot on varsity by her senior season. “It’s a lot to score in just three years so I'm not 100% sure that I'll do it,” she says of her goal. “But I am 100% sure that I will put in my full effort and play to the best of my ability!”
Winning two back-to-back state championships as a sophomore is pretty special. Equally special, he says, is being part of—and learning from—such a close group of teammates. A lacrosse player since the second grade, Ben, who also plays basketball for Big Blue, credits his fellow Pingry teammates and the tough competition they face during the season with helping him to improve his game. “But also,” he adds, “the academics have taught me how to manage my time and be productive when I’m not playing. I’ve learned how to prepare better—know when I have an away game, know what work I need to get done, and be proactive about it.”
Halfway through his high school career, Ben is hoping to put another two state championships under his belt. But he doesn’t lose sight of the advice he and his teammates got one day from Coach Webster. “We all talk about the championships, he told us, but it’s really not about the championships. It’s about the relationships you form with your friends and teammates; you consider them family.”
“I thought that 2:15 was a good goal for the race, but that 2:14 and 2:13 would be my limit,” she recalls. “But running 2:12 and placing second really surprised me. I was trying to keep the #1 runner in my sights the whole time. During the race, several runners passed me and then I passed them again. When I saw the clock in the last straight-away I was just so excited. My whole family and extended family were there cheering me on. Even my younger brother’s wrestling coach came!”
She broke Pingry’s school record yet again, earning the 10th fastest time of any high schooler in the nation, and the best time for a freshman.
The race, she says, was a standout moment in a successful freshman athletic campaign, one that included helping Pingry’s 4x800 meter relay team to a ninth-place finish at Nationals one week later, and, helping to lead the Girls’ Varsity Lacrosse Team to a #10 state ranking that spring.
She credits the support she got from Pingry coaches for allowing her to pursue her lacrosse passion, and not shoehorn her into the outdoor track season. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to play one sport all year; I want to be versatile as an athlete. Track and cross country [which she ran in the fall] are individual sports and I put pressure on myself. Lacrosse is different because it’s a team sport and there’s more togetherness. I really enjoy both,” she says.
Which is why, when asked what Big Blue goals she’s most looking forward to achieving in the years ahead, she can’t quite decide. “I’m excited to step up more in lacrosse next year, as seven seniors are graduating. I won’t be the freshman on the team anymore; I can step into a bigger role. I’m also excited to get faster and improve my 800 time, especially now that I have the confidence. I want to break 2:10. That’s going to be exciting.”
Winter season: Basketball team—again, to try something new. Spring season: Carson, a lacrosse player since Grade 3, proudly makes the Middle School Girls’ A Team, the only sixth grader that year to do so.
Her passion for sport, she says, is partly attributable to her sister, Avery ’19, who is captain of the 2018-19 Girls’ Varsity Field Hockey Team, and her brother, Tripp ’21, who was part of Big Blue’s varsity lacrosse lineup as a freshman. But Carson is quick to point out what benefits she sees for herself: “Sports helped me in the transition from the Lower School to the Middle School—being on teams is a great way to meet other students. And it’s great in the Middle School now to have the freedom to pick what sport we want to play.”
Next year, she’s considering a return to her beloved field hockey in the fall, perhaps giving squash a try in the winter, and, of course, keeping up with the lacrosse team in the spring. Thinking ahead to her athletic career in the Upper School, what are her goals? “It would be great to make varsity field hockey and lacrosse as a freshman, but I know that’s really hard,” she says. “I just want to make an impact on whatever team I play on.”
Off the turf field, and outside of Pingry, Jared plays competitive lacrosse for his town team, the Cougars, as well as for a club team, NJ Diesel. This winter, he’s considering joining an indoor box lacrosse team. He has also played basketball for as long as he can remember, most recently for his YMCA team and with an organization called Starting 5ive. He plans to try out for his town team this coming season. Flag football is yet another interest of Jared’s; he is playing in a local league for the first time this year.
You might forgive an active student athlete like Jared for yawning in PE class, but he is just as passionate a competitor in the Lower School’s gymnasium and fields as he is on his own teams. Dodgeball and Capture the Jack (a variation on Capture the Flag, devised by Lower Schoolers) are his favorites, but it’s easy to see he gets excited about playing any sport with his friends. “I just finished the cross country unit; we had to run a lot. And I’m doing a unit on pickleball now. It’s all fun!”
Does he bring any lessons from PE class into the classroom with him? “One thing I learned from Mr. LaFontaine [Lower School PE teacher] is that school comes before sports,” Jared says. “He tells us, ‘Work hard, play hard.’ Sometimes, when I’m working really hard, I like to do sports to give my mind a break.”Jared looks forward to playing lacrosse and basketball when he moves up to the Middle School next year. “I think it’s going to be fun to be able to play for my school,” he says. He remembers his former lacrosse coach taking him to see Big Blue versus Bridgewater-Raritan (the coach’s alma mater) in the semifinals of the 2016 Tournament of Champions, at Kean State University. He was only in the third grade at the time, but the experience clearly made a big impression. “Pingry ended up winning!” he remembers, smiling.
Come spring track season, he won every 800- and 1600-meter event he raced. A year later, as an eighth grader, he avenged his runner-up status in both meets the year before by winning the competitive Ed Scott Invitational—on Pingry’s home course—and Gill St. Bernard’s Great Pumpkin Run.
Henry’s love of the sport—and talent—is a family affair. His older brother, Stewart ’14, who captained Big Blue’s cross-country team his senior year, competed for Dartmouth College for a year (an injury forced an early end to his running career). His older sister, Anna ’18, also a standout runner at Pingry, recently broke the indoor track school record in the 3200-meter run. A lover of math, who also plays ice hockey in the winter (“I like to go fast!” he says), Henry embraces the work ethic and persistence that running require. “Like schoolwork,” he says, “you get out of running what you put into it.”