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Raising the Bar
Meet some of South Jersey’s top-level varsity athletes.

by Matt Cosentino; Photography by Tim Hawk

Jewel Ash, Eastern track and field
One of the best hurdlers and sprinters in the area since her freshman year, Ash captured a state championship in the 400 hurdles last spring as a sophomore and placed second in the 100 hurdles, moving on to the Meet of Champions in both events. The junior is poised to add to her collection of medals this season.
South Jersey Magazine: You burst onto the scene two years ago as a freshman. Were you surprised to have an impact right away at Eastern?
Jewel Ash: Yes, I was, because a lot of people say it’s tough transitioning to high school and running against older girls. I ran for a travel track team before and I only ran against my age group, but coming into high school I was running against juniors and seniors as a freshman. My freshman year I ran against [Olympian] Sydney McLaughlin [when she was a senior at Union Catholic]. I was so terrified.
South Jersey Magazine: You won a sectional title that year and last year added a state championship in the 400 hurdles. What was that feeling like?
Jewel Ash: It felt really good. I definitely have a mental block issue. Everyone knows my potential except for me. So winning that just helps me show that I’m getting closer and closer to exploding out there.
South Jersey Magazine: How did you react when you won? Because apparently you’re not big on celebrations.
Jewel Ash: I get excited but I don’t really show my excitement.
South Jersey Magazine: When did you get started in the hurdles?
Jewel Ash: I think I was 13 when I started and now the 400 hurdles is my favorite race. I like the adrenaline. Some people say it’s the most difficult event on the track and I like to be the one to say I accomplished the event and I’m good at it.
South Jersey Magazine: Is the start to the race crucial for you to get in a groove?
Jewel Ash: Yes. My goal is to run a 57 [seconds] in the hurdles this year, and in order to get to that level my coach says I have to run 6.5 seconds or better to the first hurdle. I always mess up at the Meet of Champions every year; I run 7.5 and I’m always the last one to the hurdle, so that puts me in a bad position and I have to give it my all for the last 100 meters.
South Jersey Magazine: Are you confident you can win states again this year and compete for the Meet of Champions title?
Jewel Ash: Yes, I’m confident but I have to put the work into it, because I know everyone else is working. I just have to work harder.
South Jersey Magazine: What else are you going to compete in this year?
Jewel Ash: I do the 400-meter dash, the 100 hurdles, the 200-meter dash and I’m going to do the 100 again; I haven’t done it since my freshman year.
South Jersey Magazine: When did you first figure out that you were faster than most people?
Jewel Ash: I started track when I was 5, when we lived in Washington state. I was running the 100 meters and I’ve never really had a good start in the 100. So I was losing for 60 meters and I was in fifth place, but my strength came out the last 40 meters and I won. We knew at that point I had a gift and we had to keep going with it.
South Jersey Magazine: When did you move to New Jersey?
Jewel Ash: I moved here when I was in sixth grade. It’s really different here. Sixth grade is middle school here, and I was still going to be in elementary school in Washington, so moving up so fast was weird to me. The people are different and they talk different here.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you like South Jersey now?
Jewel Ash: Yes, I like it here now. I like the people in general. I eat, sleep and breathe track. I just run, go home and do homework. In the summertime I do hang out with my friends but not that often because I have to stay in shape.
South Jersey Magazine: If you do get free time, where will you usually be found?
Jewel Ash: I’m probably at the mall or hanging out with my friends and going out to eat.
South Jersey Magazine: Have you started thinking about college yet?
Jewel Ash: Yes, I’ve been thinking about college. I got invited to a few Junior Days and I’m going to go out and visit. I’m very excited but it’s overwhelming. Who doesn’t want to go to college for free? But you have to pick the right college.
South Jersey Magazine: What traits are you looking for in a college?
Jewel Ash: I want to major in English because I want to be a lawyer, so I’ve been looking at schools that have a good English department and whether they have a law program I can transfer to. I’m thinking about track but I’m also thinking about how I’m going to move on in life. I’ve never been someone who wanted to go to the Olympics. Everyone asks me why, but I just don’t want to go that far with it. I’ve always wanted to have a nice family, so I want to settle down after I get my law degree. I don’t want to sign with someone and then have to spend years doing more track.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you watch the Olympics?
Jewel Ash: Yeah, I love watching the Olympics. I love Allyson Felix; I think she’s just a great person.
South Jersey Magazine: What made you want to go into law? Do you like to argue?
Jewel Ash: Yes and I’m really good at it, from what everyone tells me [laughs]. I’ve been watching Law and Order for a while now and I’ve seen every episode. It gives me a rush that I don’t get from anything else except track.
South Jersey Magazine: What’s your relationship like with your sister Jailya, a sophomore on the team? Do you push each other on the track?
Jewel Ash: At practice we do. Not so much at meets because we’re competing against each other. If she wins, of course I’m so proud of her and if I win, she’s proud of me. It’s a sibling rivalry like any other siblings would have.
South Jersey Magazine: Is it just the two of you?
Jewel Ash: I have an older brother and I have two little foster brothers. One is Julian, who’s 4, and Jonathan, who’s 2.
South Jersey Magazine: What are the team goals this year?
Jewel Ash: I really think we can contend for some team titles. In indoor we were really close to getting a team title, even without our senior Dariyah Corbett-Collier. She’s a big contributor to our team but she was hurt. … My teammates have been working really hard and our coach has been giving us tough workouts that are going to make us strong for the outdoor season. I think we can win a state title.
Derek Gess, Haddonfield track and field
A two-time sectional champion in the 800 meters, Gess also excels in the mile and has been knocking on the door of a state title the last several years. He hopes to accomplish the feat in his senior season before continuing his career at the Naval Academy.
South Jersey Magazine: Are you looking forward to a big final season at Haddonfield?
Derek Gess: I am. I left some things unturned in the winter season and got hit with a sickness at the end. I have some big goals for outdoor, so I’m excited.
South Jersey Magazine: Is outdoor your favorite season over cross country and indoor track?
Derek Gess: Yeah, definitely. It just gives me more opportunities to run fast, which is what I’m trying to do.
South Jersey Magazine: How old were you when you started running competitively?
Derek Gess: I remember running with the Marlton Track Club as early as second grade. I wasn’t too serious then; I would go out for runs maybe twice a week. But middle school is when I started running every day and training with some older guys. I guess I started to see how talented I was and kept it going from there.
South Jersey Magazine: What do you like about running?
Derek Gess: People say that track and cross country are not team sports; they’re just individual. But I can tell you that I probably would not be running right now if it wasn’t for my team. It’s hard to go out there and run on your own, and it’s just so nice to have those guys to talk with. They’re my best friends off the track and that’s the main reason I like running. You can go out for seven miles and have a great conversation.
South Jersey Magazine: The Haddonfield program has such a great tradition and has had a lot of success over the years. Have you enjoyed being part of it?
Derek Gess: Definitely. It helps me with my goals because I know there are some really good records that have been set over the years. For instance, I’m going for the 800 record this year and I feel like it gives me extra motivation just to know that I can be the fastest 800 runner to come through. That would be pretty cool to say.
South Jersey Magazine: What’s your favorite meet at the high school level?
Derek Gess: I feel like states is where I perform the best. Up until then it’s just racing; I’m not going for any times or anything, I’m just seeing where my training takes me. But at states there’s some really good competition in Group II and that’s where I really hit my goals.
South Jersey Magazine: You’ve come so close to a state title the last few years. Do you feel like you’re on the cusp?
Derek Gess: I haven’t gotten one yet so that’s definitely my highest goal right now. That’s something I’ve wanted to have since freshman year. I’ve taken second four times at states—twice in indoor and twice in outdoor.
South Jersey Magazine: Did your older sister Briana have a big impact on your running career?
Derek Gess: We trained together growing up. Every summer we’d take a family vacation out west and I remember we’d just go on runs. The summer going into my freshman year we were on the same schedule for cross country and that was the first time I was doing heavy mileage. It’s so much easier to run with someone, especially having a training partner in your own family. She definitely helped me.
South Jersey Magazine: Where did you usually go on vacation?
Derek Gess: We’ve been all over: California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming. Basically all the Western states. Our vacations are really workouts. If we’re not running, we’re hiking and swimming and all of that fun stuff. My parents love that.
South Jersey Magazine: What was your favorite spot to visit?
Derek Gess: I’d probably say California. We were in Northern California and we got to see the redwoods. It was an awesome experience. But it’s tough to pick one favorite because each one was so special.
South Jersey Magazine: Is attending the Naval Academy something you’ve aspired to for a long time?
Derek Gess: It was on my radar. I started thinking about colleges the winter of my junior year, so I put together a list. I never really thought about Navy—it just didn’t seem like my type of school. But I emailed the coach, he got back to me and we set up a visit for the spring. I went there and I got to see an outdoor track meet and I liked it. But I left saying, ‘I’m not sure if this is for me.’ Then during my official visits, Navy was my last one out of four and I was actually thinking about canceling it. So I called the coach the day before and said, ‘Hey coach, I don’t think the Naval Academy is for me. Thank you for everything you’ve done; I just don’t see myself there.’ But he said, ‘It doesn’t hurt to come down and see what it’s like. There’s no commitment in that.’ So I went and I ended up loving everything about it. That helped me make the decision. I was very fortunate.
South Jersey Magazine: Are you excited about getting the chance to serve your country?
Derek Gess: I didn’t grow up thinking I wanted to do that, but it’s definitely something I’m excited about. It will be nice to have those opportunities as soon as I get out of college.
South Jersey Magazine: What do you want to study?
Derek Gess: They have a specific engineering program called systems engineering that I want to do there. I went to the Naval Academy Summer Seminar and they gave us an intro to all different types of classes. It seemed like it was right up my alley.
South Jersey Magazine: What do you like about Haddonfield? Have you always lived there?
Derek Gess: We moved there when I was 5 and we’ve lived there ever since. It’s awesome, the close community we have. I’ve seen a lot of other schools and towns where everything is so spread out. Growing up I could walk to all of my friends’ houses. I like the sense of community, and getting close to the people around me has definitely helped me academically, athletically and socially.
South Jersey Magazine: What are your hobbies when you’re not running or training?
Derek Gess: I love playing pick-up basketball; I never say no to that. I love any outdoor activity; I’m just a very active person. I love playing any sport and watching sports. I also love to play the piano.
South Jersey Magazine: Did you grow up taking piano lessons?
Derek Gess: Yes, I took lessons up until middle school. I play modern music; any pop songs. I just look up the song on YouTube and try to teach myself. It’s really relaxing.
Cade Hunter, Lenape baseball
A three-year starter behind the plate, Hunter batted .424 and led Lenape with five home runs and 24 RBIs last season as a junior to make the all-conference first team. He has high hopes for his senior campaign before moving on to Virginia Tech.
South Jersey Magazine: How does it feel to be entering your final season at Lenape?
Cade Hunter: It’s kind of weird. I’ve been looking at some of the sophomores we have and it’s weird how much they don’t know. I feel like a veteran now, because I’ve been through so much and I know what to expect. It’s crazy.
South Jersey Magazine: Have you always been a catcher?
Cade Hunter: Yes. When I was 6 they asked who wanted to put on the gear, and I thought the helmet was cool so I put it on and it just kind of stuck. I like being in the game; some of the other positions still have a big part on the team but they’re not involved in every single pitch. I’m calling the game and calling the plays, so it just feels like I’m more active during the game.
South Jersey Magazine: What are your goals for yourself and the team this year?
Cade Hunter: We always want to be at the top of our division. Last year we came up short and didn’t necessarily have the season we wanted. We’re hoping to turn it around and get back to the top.
South Jersey Magazine: What team do you look forward to playing the most?
Cade Hunter: I always like kicking Cherokee’s butt [laughs]. Eastern is always rowdy and they’ve been tough in recent years, but I think this year we might get ’em.
South Jersey Magazine: Is there a pitcher you like going up against?
Cade Hunter: [Jesse] Barbera pitched against us every time we played Eastern. He graduated but I always liked going against him because he was never scared and he never tried to pitch around you. I remember my sophomore year was my first test against him and I think I got my first varsity hit off him. I also faced him in the Carpenter Cup last year, which was pretty cool because it kind of came full circle.
South Jersey Magazine: What was it like playing in the Carpenter Cup last year and helping Burlington County make it to the final at Citizens Bank Park?
Cade Hunter: That was awesome; I was so happy to be a part of it. It was so much fun playing at Citizens Bank Park. My rec league would always have a Phillies day when we were growing up, so we’d get to walk around the park with our team and I always thought about what it would be like to play there. When you step in the batter’s box, it’s like you’re in a video game. Everything is so big and every line on the field is perfect. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to play there when the stands are filled.
South Jersey Magazine: Are you a Phillies fan?
Cade Hunter: I am a Phillies fan. [Signing Bryce Harper] was a big move. We had the right scenario lined up to get him and luckily we did. I’m excited to see what he brings.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you play anything else besides baseball?
Cade Hunter: No, just baseball. I played football freshman year but I hung up my cleats in that sport.
South Jersey Magazine: Are you excited to play at Virginia Tech?
Cade Hunter: I can’t wait. I got a good opportunity to head there next year and I’m looking forward to it. It’s a good college town with nothing much but the campus there. The program is heading in the right direction. They brought in coach [John] Szefc from Maryland; he had a very successful run there. He brought in a brand-new staff with him, and when I started going on my visits they told me they’d be there guaranteed through my senior year. They have a brand-new stadium, a brand-new indoor [facility] and it’s really going in the right direction.
South Jersey Magazine: The football program has been solid for a long time and the men’s basketball team is in the NCAA Tournament. It seems like they have a good athletic culture there.
Cade Hunter: Yeah. On my visit we went to the Virginia Tech-Miami football game and the energy was great. Most of the kids were on Thanksgiving break but the stadium was still booming the entire time. I love the camaraderie, because you’re all basically a family just rooting for each other.
South Jersey Magazine: Is it the same way at Lenape?
Cade Hunter: It’s the same way. This year, I think we had the best student section for my whole high school career at our football games. We tried to get it going for our basketball team too. We’re a family and we love cheering each other on and seeing each other succeed. I hope it’s the same way when it comes to baseball.
South Jersey Magazine: What do you like about growing up in South Jersey?
Cade Hunter: In my section of Mount Laurel, everybody knows everybody. When we went to the ballpark when we were kids, it was all friendly faces. Seeing everyone grow up and how they turned out is something I really like.
South Jersey Magazine: What do you like to do when you’re not playing ball?
Cade Hunter: When I’m not playing ball, I’m a big Fortnite guy. I like playing pick-up basketball with friends. Other than that, I’m usually in the weight room trying to get better.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you have a MLB player you look up to?
Cade Hunter: I’m a big Jonathan Lucroy fan. I know he’s kind of an underrated catcher, but I just think he does so many things right. He plays the game the right way and he’s never had any issues. He jumps around from team to team and he doesn’t let that faze him; he goes out and plays his game. He’s so fundamentally sound as a catcher and I try to model my game after him.
South Jersey Magazine: What do you want to study in college?
Cade Hunter: I want to get into physical therapy, so my major is going to be human nutrition, foods and exercise. I’d like to work in a rehab center and help athletes get back on their feet. I’m in a sports medicine class right now at Lenape and it’s blowing my mind. I’m having so much fun in that class.
South Jersey Magazine: Who’s your favorite teacher at Lenape?
Cade Hunter: This year, it’s probably Mrs. [Jody] Stansbury. She teaches sports med and she’s also a gym teacher. She loves her job so much. She’s a goofball sometimes, but everyone loves her and she always brings a smile to people’s faces.
Meghan Davis, Cherry Hill West softball
A four-year starter and one of the top catchers in South Jersey, Davis posted a .423 batting average with three home runs, 21 RBIs and 23 runs scored as a junior. She will continue her career at Marist.
South Jersey Magazine: You’re part of a strong core of seniors at Cherry Hill West. Are you excited to see what you can accomplish in your final season together?
Meghan Davis: Yes. Not only have we been playing together since freshman year; we’ve been playing together since sixth grade, all throughout middle school and high school. In sixth and seventh grade we went to the championship both years and lost, and then in eighth grade we won the championship. … It’s going to be really sad to stop playing softball with these girls who I’ve known for almost 10 years of my life. Kayla Posten is my best friend and this is the last year we’ll be playing together. Next year, she’s going to Florida and I’m going to New York.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you have individual and team goals you’d like to accomplish?
Meghan Davis: My individual goal is definitely to get to 100 hits; I’m really close. For team goals, I would love to win a state championship. I just want to see us go as far as we can in the playoffs.
South Jersey Magazine: Catching is such an important position. Do you like the responsibility that comes with it?
Meghan Davis: I love it. It comes with its cons as well; sometimes you feel as though you’re taking responsibility for certain actions or certain plays that happen, even though they may not involve you. But I love being a leader, having people look up to me and wanting to play as hard as I do.
South Jersey Magazine: What are the rivalry games you look forward to the most?
Meghan Davis: Definitely [Cherry Hill] East. It’s always fun to play Paul VI, Bishop Eustace and even the regional schools such as Lenape and Shawnee. But honestly, every day I wake up and there’s a game, I’m going out to win.
South Jersey Magazine: You hit for a high average but you also hit a lot of home runs. Do you consider yourself a power hitter?
Meghan Davis: I would say so, but I can also bunt when needed. I consider myself a power hitter and almost the core of the lineup. As I go, the team goes.
South Jersey Magazine: How old were you when you started playing softball?
Meghan Davis: I was probably 5 or 6. It started back in CHYAA (Cherry Hill Youth Athletic Association); that’s when me and Kayla first met and we’ve been playing together ever since. It was actually my mom who signed me up. My dad might take all the credit, but it was my mom. She also sent me out for the district team and my dad said, ‘She’s not going to make it, she’s not good enough.’ But I made it and the rest is history.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you like playing travel softball and getting to play in tournaments all over the country?
Meghan Davis: I love it. I wouldn’t want to live my life any other way. I feel like softball has helped me fulfill so many dreams and do so many things I would never have dreamt of doing. I’ve also seen some cool places. My favorite is Colorado—going out there every summer is a blast and it’s always a fun to win out there, especially when you make it to the Boulder fields, where you play against all the girls going to top schools. You’re playing in front of UCLA, Auburn, the University of Florida. Even though I’m not going to those schools, getting the chance to play in front of them is life-changing and something I’m so thankful for every day.
South Jersey Magazine: Are you excited to get to Marist?
Meghan Davis: I’m so excited to get to Marist. I’m excited for a change. I’m excited to play with girls—not that I don’t now—who are at my level and better. I want to grow as a person and a player.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you think your parents will be able to see you play often?
Meghan Davis: It’s three hours and 10 minutes away so I’m sure they’ll be there a lot. Rider and Monmouth are in our conference so I’m sure they’ll be at those games, wearing red.
South Jersey Magazine: What do you want to study?
Meghan Davis: I’m going to major in political science and after I graduate from Marist, I’m going to apply to law school and become a lawyer. … I started thinking about that because I couldn’t play basketball after I committed to Marist, so I was looking for something to do at school. I joined a mock trial club and I just fell in love with it. I love being in a courtroom, being a leader and helping people.
South Jersey Magazine: Where can you be found when you’re not playing softball?
Meghan Davis: Babysitting, hanging out with my friends, doing homework. I also love to paint and I love going for walks. I paint canvases, so a lot of them are nature: a lot of flowers, mountains and trees. It’s relaxing, and when you need a break from the game it’s good to take a break and think about something else.
South Jersey Magazine: What do you like about Cherry Hill?
Meghan Davis: I’ve always lived in Cherry Hill. I like how close we are to Philadelphia, New York City and even Washington, D.C. I like the people; I’ve set some great people who will be successful and I can’t wait to keep them as friends. My family is here too, which I really love.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you have favorite TV shows or movies?
Meghan Davis: I’m not a big TV watcher. I like to watch SportsCenter and the news, that’s about it. I normally only watch TV when I’m eating breakfast. But I do follow college softball, and of course I love watching the Eagles, the Sixers, the Flyers and the Phillies too.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you have any siblings?
Meghan Davis: I have a brother Sean, who is a sophomore, and a sister Ella, who is in fifth grade. She’s a pitcher.
South Jersey Magazine: Did you ever pitch?
Meghan Davis: I tried for about a week, but it wasn’t for me. I realized I was meant to be behind the dish.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you ever catch your sister?
Meghan Davis: Sometimes, but we do argue. I tell her what to do and she doesn’t like it. I try to be nice, but I guess I can be loud and mean. It’s all out of love though.
Akhil Giri, Moorestown golf
Giri, a senior, has established himself as one of the premier golfers in the state the last two years. He was the Burlington County champion last spring, earned a top-three finish at sectionals for the second year in a row and placed in the top 10 at states. Also a standout on Moorestown’s state championship basketball team this winter, he will focus on golf at Colgate.
South Jersey Magazine: There was no break for you this year between sports because of all the great success in basketball. Was that difficult?
Akhil Giri: No, because I love both sports. Golf is definitely my main sport—I’m playing it in college—but I just love playing sports in general.
South Jersey Magazine: Your basketball team had such an amazing run this year. What was it like to be a part of that?
Akhil Giri: Our original goal at the beginning of the year was to win the league, and then progressively our goals kept getting bigger and bigger. Eventually we ended up in the state championship. It kind of feels like a blur to all of us right now. All year we had the same mentality, which was to stay together as one, never put the individual above the team and work together. We’ve been together for a long time playing basketball and it was just a matter of time before everything clicked together. Our coaches did a great job of preparing for every team we played and we were able to win the state championship by 15 points, which was huge. Beating Haddonfield in the Tournament of Champions was a huge accomplishment for all of us and we’re extremely proud.
South Jersey Magazine: You were kind of the 3-point specialist on the team. Is that something you’ve always been good at?
Akhil Giri: That’s the part of the game I realized you can put a lot of work into, and that made a huge impact. I’m not the tallest person, so being able to shoot 3s allowed me to play earlier than someone my size who couldn’t shoot.
South Jersey Magazine: Will you continue to play basketball for fun?
Akhil Giri: Absolutely. I know at Colgate they love to play basketball as a team, so I’ll definitely keep playing.
South Jersey Magazine: In golf you’ve had a lot of success as well. What are your goals for your final season?
Akhil Giri: The ultimate goal is to win a state championship. We’ve finished second three years in a row, which leaves a bad taste in all of our mouths. In terms of individual goals, I want to set the record at Moorestown for the lowest nine-hole average and for the lowest tournament average. I think I’m capable of doing it and my teammates definitely give me the encouragement to be able to do it. As a team we won four out of eight tournaments last year and we’re looking to build on that and have a memorable end to our senior year.
South Jersey Magazine: What is the record for nine-hole average?
Akhil Giri: It’s 36.1, and last year I had 36.6. I was close last year so I’ll try to get it this year.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you have a favorite tournament to play in?
Akhil Giri: I would say my favorite tournament is probably the Burlington County Scholastic League Tournament. I’ve won that one two years in a row and last year I shot a 66, so I’m kind of biased. The Carl Arena was definitely unbelievable for us last year too. We set the record for a team and averaged 75 for all four players, and I took home third individually.
South Jersey Magazine: What courses in South Jersey do you like to play?
Akhil Giri: My home course is Laurel Creek, so that’s definitely my favorite course. I also like Little Mill, even though it’s extremely tough. It helps prepare you for other tough courses. Tavistock is my other favorite course around here.
South Jersey Magazine: What’s the best course you’ve played anywhere?
Akhil Giri: I would have to say it’s Harbour Town down in Hilton Head, where they play the RBC Heritage. Carts weren’t allowed the day we were there, so we had to walk and they had all of the grandstands up. You really felt like a Tour player when you were out there, even if you weren’t hitting it like them. It was an incredible experience.
South Jersey Magazine: If you could pick any course in the world to play, which would you choose?
Akhil Giri: I’d have to go with Augusta National, for sure. With the history at that course, playing there would be unbelievable.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you get into The Masters and other major tournaments?
Akhil Giri: I watch every tournament, every week. I don’t watch every hole, but I know what’s going on and especially on Sundays I like to watch the final round.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you have a favorite player?
Akhil Giri: Tiger Woods. He just has that next-level ability that no one else has ever possessed in golf. I know he went through all of that stuff with hurting his body, but the fact that he came back and won last year proved that he still has it inside of him and he’s still a competitor like he was back in 2000.
South Jersey Magazine: How did you first get started in golf?
Akhil Giri: My dad has been playing golf for a long time and when we moved here when I was 4, we became members at Laurel Creek. He would take me out just to watch him play and I really had no interest at all. I would just eat snacks in the cart and watch. We actually went on a cruise over the summer four years ago and they had a sports deck, so I started hitting balls into a net. I realized I liked it and I was pretty good at it. That’s when I started playing and the rest is history.
South Jersey Magazine: Where did you move here from?
Akhil Giri: Ann Arbor, Michigan. My parents are both physicians and they were doing their residency at the University of Michigan. After my sister was born, we moved here.
South Jersey Magazine: What led to your decision to attend Colgate?
Akhil Giri: My final two schools were Lehigh and Colgate, and when I took my visits to both I really liked them a lot. Colgate is also a great academic school, which is something I was looking for as well, and coach [Keith] Tyburski welcomed me with open arms, along with the players. I just felt like it was the perfect spot for me to go play golf.
South Jersey Magazine: There’s also a Moorestown connection at Colgate with Matt Langel, the basketball coach.
Akhil Giri: Yes, he led them to the tournament this year and did a great job.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you want to go into medicine like your parents?
Akhil Giri: I do. I actually want to be a cardiologist like my dad.
South Jersey Magazine: Would you like to play golf past college?
Akhil Giri: Yeah, obviously that would be an incredible opportunity if I could play past college. If I shoot extremely low numbers and I get the opportunity to play in certain events, then for sure I would go. I love golf more than anything and to play past college would be a dream.
South Jersey Magazine: What do you like to do when you’re not playing sports?
Akhil Giri: Mainly I just like to hang out with friends. My best friends are on the golf team and we probably hang out every day. We’ll go bowling; we’ll go to the movies. I also catch up on as much sleep as I can, because basketball was very tiring the last four months and now I’m into golf. I still get home late every day and with school and everything, it takes its toll. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
South Jersey Magazine: Since you mentioned movies, what’s the best golf movie in your opinion?
Akhil Giri: I have to go with Happy Gilmore. I’m a big fan of that movie. There are some other good ones too, like Tin Cup and Caddyshack.
Ashley Vernon, Shawnee lacrosse
A three-year starter in goal for the Renegades, Vernon made 180 saves last season to make the all-South Jersey and all-conference first teams. She hopes to lead Shawnee to a South Jersey championship this spring before moving on to East Carolina.
South Jersey Magazine: What does it feel like to be entering your final season at Shawnee?
Ashley Vernon: It’s kind of bittersweet. It’s exciting to be a senior and everything, but it’s sad that this is my last season.
South Jersey Magazine: What are your goals for this season?
Ashley Vernon: My goal is to win the [sectional] championship and go on to states and just have a great season with my team. I’m pretty confident; we have a lot of skilled girls. Obviously it’s hard to lose Erica [Barr] and Jenna [Mesisca], our two main scorers from last year. But we have Sami MacDonald, who’s an incredible attacker, and we have Lauren Jobes and Meredith Farley coming back. We also have some sophomores who really grew into their positions and are stepping up this year.
South Jersey Magazine: How did you get into lacrosse?
Ashley Vernon: I started playing lacrosse in first grade; I was actually a midfielder. I played all the way up through fifth grade and then I quit, because I thought I wanted to play soccer in college. But then all of my friends were playing on the middle school team, so at the last minute I decided to go out for the team. I was still a midfielder but about halfway through the season, I wasn’t getting any time. I’m really, really competitive so I went to the coach and asked what I needed to do to get better and play with the first team. She said, ‘You’re not going to play with the first team in the field; you’re just not there. But we don’t have a goalie so you can try that.’ So I tried it and fought it at first, but eventually I loved it and decided to play in high school.
South Jersey Magazine: So you weren’t crazy about the position initially?
Ashley Vernon: No, I was still fighting it. I almost didn’t play in high school but at the last minute I asked if they had any spare goalie pads in the closet, and thank God they did. I just borrowed school equipment for my entire freshman year, and then I really started to love it. Bianca Smith pushed me to try out for South Jersey Select after that season and once I did that, I was hooked. It was really hard to leave soccer, but I knew it was the right decision.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you feel comfortable in net now?
Ashley Vernon: Yeah, I feel pretty comfortable. It’s still nerve-wracking but it’s more exciting than scary. I never felt scared getting shot on, and I think that’s what drew me to playing goalie.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you have to have a short memory as a goalie? Lacrosse is a high-scoring sport, so is it important as the goalie to move on quickly after allowing a goal?
Ashley Vernon: Yes. That’s kind of something I’ve struggled with. My coaches always tell me I have a soccer mindset; if I allow four goals, I’m beating myself up because I feel like I’ve let my team down. But after playing for a few years, I’m starting to realize it’s not the end of the world when you allow four goals. You have to have a short memory and that’s something I’m working on. My friend always tells me to have a mind like a goldfish, because they don’t remember anything.
South Jersey Magazine: What led to your decision to attend East Carolina?
Ashley Vernon: I was looking at a bunch of schools but it came down to Michigan, Cincinnati, Louisville and ECU. I chose ECU because of the amazing coaching staff and the team. It’s a family-type atmosphere and they all made me feel so welcomed off the bat. I wasn’t even nervous about going off to college when I was there. I also felt like I had so many opportunities educationally at ECU. Also, the fact that my head coach there is a former UNC goalie and will be the goalie coach was a major plus. I’m so excited to get down there.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you know what you want to study?
Ashley Vernon: Biology. I’m hoping to either go into more of a forensic psychiatry route and eventually work for the FBI in behavior analysis, or do cardiology. I have family members in law enforcement and I started thinking about the FBI because I really like the show Criminal Minds. So I started researching it, and criminal profiling is a job. I know it’s not like the TV show, but the idea of piecing clues together is something I really love to do and I think it would be the perfect thing for me. As far as cardiology, I have had people in my family and friends with cardiac problems and that made me want to help people with similar conditions.
South Jersey Magazine: What do you like about living in Medford?
Ashley Vernon: It’s kind of quiet. Everybody knows each other and it’s a nice place to grow up. I feel like nothing bad happens there for the most part.
South Jersey Magazine: Are you a Shore person?
Ashley Vernon: I actually like the Outer Banks more than the Jersey Shore. I know that’s an unpopular opinion, but that’s another reason I’m really excited to go to East Carolina.
South Jersey Magazine: What are your interests outside of sports?
Ashley Vernon: I like to hang out with my friends. We usually go to get dinner or see a movie. I love spending time with my family. I’m really close with all of my cousins, who mostly live around here. We have pizza nights on Fridays.
South Jersey Magazine: Who is the funniest girl on the team and can lighten the mood during a rough practice?
Ashley Vernon: We have a lot of personalities on our team. The biggest one is probably Lucy Clapperton; she’s a junior this year. Everything that comes out of her mouth is hilarious. She’s always the one to lift everyone up and make everyone laugh. I don’t even think she means to half the time—it just happens.
Brett Guetens, Washington Township volleyball
A senior outside hitter, Guetens had 158 kills and 99 service points last year to help the Minutemen reach the sectional semifinals. Also a standout forward on Washington Township’s state championship soccer team, he will focus on soccer next year at West Chester.
South Jersey Magazine: I know that soccer is your main sport, but is volleyball important to you as well?
Brett Guetens: Yeah, definitely. I went to a bunch of my friends’ games freshman year and fell in love with it, so I wanted to try it. Sophomore year, I stopped playing basketball and took the winter off, but I wanted to play another sport in high school. I tried out for the team, it went really well and the coach loved me. I ended up sitting varsity for the first few games but eventually I got to start. Now I’m a senior and it’s my second-favorite sport.
South Jersey Magazine: What do you like about it?
Brett Guetens: I love the speed of it. Nothing is better than a really good volley with another team. I like that it has different movements than soccer and I’m able to use my hands and other parts of my athletic ability. Usually people don’t think it’s that big of a sport—they think it’s just a gym class sport—but it’s a lot more than that.
South Jersey Magazine: The Washington Township girls team had a great season in the fall and I know your team is looking to match that. What are your goals?
Brett Guetens: We have a good amount of seniors coming back and we actually have a few new players who should be good for us. We lost three really important players from last year, but I think we’ve gotten better and the conference has lost a lot of seniors. I think this is when we can really make something happen, and maybe win the conference or the Gloucester County Tournament. We’ll see how it goes.
South Jersey Magazine: Are you working with a new setter?
Brett Guetens: We graduated Matt [Brien], who was our starting setter for three years, but we have a sophomore coming up named Tyler Jones who has probably been playing since he was 5 or 6 with his family. He’s going to be great for us. Me and Matt were really good friends; I honestly never talked to him before I started playing, but once I came into the program we just clicked. Losing him was tough because I knew where he was going to set it and he knew where I was going to hit it. But I think me and Tyler have a pretty good connection so far.
South Jersey Magazine: Are you back to full health after soccer?
Brett Guetens: I am. At the end of soccer season I had the torn hamstring, but I went through physical therapy, took some months off from club soccer and now I’m back to playing full-time volleyball and soccer. It feels good being healthy again.
South Jersey Magazine: What was it like to be part of a dominant soccer program the last few years and to put the icing on the cake this year with the state title?
Brett Guetens: Nothing felt better. Me and my friends came up playing club soccer together for years. When we were freshmen, Jake [Logar] and Chad [Yates’] brothers helped the team win the state championship, and from there we aspired to win the championship ourselves. We lost in the state semifinals sophomore and junior year, so this year we knew we had to make one final push. We played a lot of great teams this year, but the last few playoff games came down to which team had the most heart. Nobody in the state had the same situation of losing two years in a row in the state semifinals. With the senior class we had, I felt we should’ve won it all three years, but topping it off with a state championship was great.
South Jersey Magazine: Are you excited to play college soccer at West Chester?
Brett Guetens: I am. I had been talking to a lot of coaches at all three levels and I made the decision the day after Christmas. It was hard because I was looking at a lot of good schools. I was thinking heavily about where I could fit in best, where I could make an impact in soccer and where I could do great educationally. West Chester made it to the national championship game for Division II and ended up losing. In my head I thought, ‘Maybe we can make it there next year, me and the other freshmen can help and we can win one.’ After winning a state championship, the only way to beat that is by winning a national championship in college. So I talked to my family and they had pretty much known from the beginning I was going to pick West Chester. I love the coach, I love the team and I think it’s going to be a great experience.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you know what you want to study?
Brett Guetens: I’m probably going to major in political science and minor in business, because I’m going to go to law school after college. Since middle school I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer. … I’m not sure exactly what kind of lawyer, but I’m interested in sports contracts.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you like going to school at Washington Township?
Brett Guetens: Township is my favorite place, honestly. Everyone says they don’t like school, but what they really mean is they don’t like homework and tests. I would rather go to school every day and see my friends than stay home. My mom has been teaching there for 20 years, so I’ve been around that school since I could walk. … I’ve met so many great people through the years through clubs, sports and classes, and there’s no place I’d rather be.
South Jersey Magazine: What are your hobbies when you’re not playing sports?
Brett Guetens: Normal teenage things like hanging out with the guys, playing video games and watching TV. When I’m not playing soccer or volleyball, we’re usually playing basketball or football just to keep us occupied. When it’s nice out, we go over to the park and there’s always a lot of people from Township there, older and younger, and we get some games in.
Karly Messina, Cherokee softball
A key player since her freshman year, Messina contributes with her arm and her bat. The junior pitcher went 17-6 with 86 strikeouts last year and batted .456 with 21 RBIs to make the all-conference first team and lead Cherokee to its second Olympic Conference American Division title in a row.
South Jersey Magazine: What are your goals for this season?
Karly Messina: I want to become a leader instead of just talking about my personal goals. I want to be better at leading the team, having confidence in the circle and working well with my catcher. I want to help the team with my hitting and throw strikes so I can get more strikeouts.
South Jersey Magazine: This is your last year playing with your sister Anna. What has it meant to you to be teammates with her at the high school level?
Karly Messina: It’s so much fun to play with her, especially because we bounce off each other at practice. It builds my confidence and it builds her confidence. … We’ve been playing together for a while and she definitely helps me.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you ever have fights on the field?
Karly Messina: [Laughs] No, we’re very lucky because we play two very separate positions. She’s an outfielder and I’m a pitcher, so when we’re playing we’re never compared to each other.
South Jersey Magazine: You have another older sister who was a standout pitcher too. Did Laura have a big influence on you?
Karly Messina: Definitely. As I was growing up, we used to pitch in the backyard together and she helped me a lot. When she was in college, Anna and I would travel to all of her games and I think that made me want to get better and go to college and be like her.
South Jersey Magazine: Have you always been a pitcher?
Karly Messina: Yes, I’ve done it pretty much my entire life. That’s all I’ve known and I love it.
South Jersey Magazine: What pitches do you throw?
Karly Messina: My best one is my curveball; I’ve been working on that my whole life. My dropball has gotten better this year; I also have a screwball and I’m working on a riseball.
South Jersey Magazine: Is it important to you to contribute with your bat too?
Karly Messina: Definitely. I’ve worked really hard on my hitting. My hitting coach has really helped me and just before high school is when I became a lot better because of her.
South Jersey Magazine: Your team has won a very good division the last two years. Are you focused on doing that again?
Karly Messina: Yes, that’s definitely a big goal. I think it’s going to be harder this year because we need our underclassmen to step up. We lost a lot of good girls from last year.
South Jersey Magazine: What did it mean to be named one of the team’s captains this season?
Karly Messina: It’s a huge honor, especially because I’m not a senior. Being alongside Anna and Jordyn Deveney is really cool, because they’re both great leaders. I’ll be able to learn from them and take it into next year.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you want to play in college?
Karly Messina: Yes, definitely. I’ve started looking and a couple of schools are interested in me. I haven’t made a decision yet. Anna is going to Ramapo, but I don’t think that is an option. I think we both want to go our separate ways for college but continue to support each other along the way.
South Jersey Magazine: As the youngest of four kids in your family, do you get preferential treatment from your parents?
Karly Messina: I don’t think so. I think they treat me the same as everyone else, although Laura probably had it the hardest as the oldest. My parents are not the type to comfort me when I do bad; they’re telling me I need to do better, and that makes me want to become better.
South Jersey Magazine: Who is a tough hitter in South Jersey you enjoy facing?
Karly Messina: Jayden Hunter from Lenape is a really good hitter. She has the same hitting coach as me, so I know she works hard and works a lot on pitch counts and how to battle the pitcher. She’s definitely a tough competitor to go against. That whole Lenape team is tough to go against.
South Jersey Magazine: All of the teams in your division are strong. Do you like the fact that there’s never an easy game?
Karly Messina: I like that a lot. It becomes fun because we’re not just killing every team. You want it to be hard to win games.
South Jersey Magazine: What do you like to do when you’re not playing softball?
Karly Messina: I’m a huge family person so I like to be with my sisters and my brother. But I play a lot of softball and it’s hard to stay away from it.
South Jersey Magazine: What do you like about Cherokee?
Karly Messina: I like that it’s a big school. I don’t know everybody, but the people I do know, I’m very close with. All of the teachers are extremely supportive with both my schoolwork and my softball. They’re always asking how I’m doing in both aspects.
South Jersey Magazine: Do you enjoy growing up in South Jersey?
Karly Messina: I like that I’ve been in Marlton my whole life and I know everybody here. I don’t have a Shore house, but I take a lot of day trips to Ocean City. I love it there.

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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 16, Issue 1 (April 2019).

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