If there was ever an example of how deep the Robbinsville High girls’ cross country program has been over the years, it would be Jackie Leszcynski.
And, if there was ever a debunking of the myth that only kids with bad grades go to junior college, it would be Jackie Leszcynski.
Leszcynski could not crack the varsity lineup for state meets at RHS but ended up being an Academic All-American after running for Mercer County Community College’s Region 19 championship team in her freshman year.
The 2016 Robbinsville graduate was the Vikings No. 3 runner last fall in helping MCCC win the region title and qualify for the NJCAA Division 1 National Championship Meet. Leszcynski finished ninth in 22:46, which was her personal best in college.
In July, Leszcynski learned that she was one of six Mercer athletes to receive Academic All-American honors, as she made third team. To qualify, athletes must have completed two semesters as full-time students and earned at least 24 credits during the 2016-17 school year. Leszcynski barely missed second-team status, which requires a GPA between 3.80 and 3.99.
“I actually wasn’t familiar with what exactly that was,” Leszcynski said. “I didn’t know that kind of recognition existed. I was like, ‘Wow, very cool!’”
The honor was no surprise to people who know Leszcynski, who graduated from RHS with a 3.7 GPA.
“I was very fortunate to go to Robbinsville,” said Leszcynski, who begins preseason training with the Vikings on Aug. 5. “It has a very good academic standing and very good, dedicated passionate teachers. A lot of the professors are really dedicated to their jobs and want to help their students out. I just tried to take advantage of it and do my part, study on my own. It’s mostly time management and that kind of carries over into college.”
That latter detail was not lost on MCCC coach Mike DeAngelis.
“She’s a smart runner and an excellent student; her time management skills are fantastic,” he said. “She’s the perfect example of a successful student athlete.”
While she was knocking ‘em dead in the classroom at Robbinsville, Leszcynski had difficulty cracking the varsity lineup of an extremely deep, talented cross country team. She ran with them in dual meets and ran the JV portion of county and state meets. Her best time locally came in the JV MCT meet in 22:27 as a sophomore. It went up to 23:05 as a junior and back down to 22:42 as a senior. Her best time overall was 21:52 at a meet in Rhode Island.
“I was probably our sixth or seventh runner in high school,” Leszcynski said. “We had a really good team.”
Leszcynski got involved in running thanks to her sisters Christina and Lisa, who are eight and four years her senior.
“Christina was never huge into running, but she still did it,” Leszcynski said. “They both really supported me. Lisa talked to me about everything from the nutritional aspect of it and really how to perform your best and feel your best while running, and she would train with me. Every day you have to go out in the summer and train and follow the schedule. Even if she was out of season she would come with me just to support me.”
When it came to picking a college, Leszcynski gave no thought to a four-year school despite having the grades to be accepted. She chose Mercer for cost reasons and also because she wanted to continue running and coach Mike DeAngelis wanted her on the team despite never seeing her run.
“I saw her times online and knew she had a lot of talent,” DeAngelis said. “Robbinsville is loaded in cross country so even their JV team has a ton of great runners. I knew she was a solid runner that came from a great program.”
‘I expect her to be a great leader and an excellent teammate who picks up other runners’ spirits when they need help.’
When Leszcynski arrived, she knew she had work to do and got some solid advice from assistant coach Tony Genovesi. A veteran mentor who coached numerous powerhouses at Notre Dame High and The College of New Jersey in the 1980s and ‘90s, Genovesi worked closely with Leszcynski on her mental approach.
“In high school I was always kind of negative during my races,” Leszcynski said. “You always have that voice that said, ‘Oh I can’t keep going.’ But it’s something I worked on in college. That’s something coach Tony put a lot of emphasis on. During our workouts he would say ‘Never have any doubt in your head.’”
That helped, along with being on a smaller team.
“In college, at least from my personal experience, I got a lot more one-on-one attention with my coaches because my high school team was so big,” Leszcynski said.
The attention paid off, as Leszcynski became a stronger runner and a pivotal figure in Mercer’s run to the Region 19 title. DeAngelis praised her consistency and ability to lead by example.
“She is enthusiastic at practice every day and works hard; the girls on the team love her,” the coach said. “Her times got better each week and she peaked at the regional championship when we needed her most. She is a key reason we won the championship with her gutsy performance. She ran an excellent race.”
One of Leszcynski’s biggest changes in college came in her course strategy. In high school, she would go out slow and pick up the pace throughout the run. Genovesi convinced her to kick in it in gear from the start.
“He always told me don’t be afraid to go out really fast,” Leszcynski said. “That was something I really had to work on mentally. You gotta believe you can do it and stick with that pace for a while, and he just really encouraged me to get in front of the pack from the beginning.”
DeAngelis lauded his runner’s durability along with her ability to pace herself.
“She raced every week and was able to withstand the rigors of a long season” the coach said. “She is very positive and doesn’t get fazed by a big moment or competition.”
With the Vikings regular season getting underway at the end of the month, Leszcynski has spent the summer getting prepared. She would alter her workouts each day and base them on time rather than distance; “and then I would just pick a route and go.”
“We do a lot of long runs to kind of build endurance,” she added. “I believe the heat in the summer helps you because it really prepares your lungs. In the fall it’s a lot cooler so by the time you get to the fall and you’re running, breathing is no problem. I really like running in the summer even though it’s really challenging.”
Leszcynski also challenged herself in the classroom, switching her major from education to business this year. She is unsure at the moment, but may transfer to Rowan (where Lisa went) after the fall semester to take advantage of their newly opened nutrition program. She will also run cross country there, but first she wants to help Mercer to more success. With a young Viking team taking the course, her coach is looking for Jackie to help lead the way.
“I expect her to set new personal records,” DeAngelis said. “I expect her to be a great leader and an excellent teammate who picks up other runners’ spirits when they need help.”
She is ready for the challenge.
“We lost most of our runners from last year so we have two or three left,” Leszcynski said. “But we have some new runners who I haven’t met yet. We’ll focus on team bonding in the pre-season, that’s a big emphasis. I think it’s important for a team to do especially when you have a huge team goal, and we do. We want to go to nationals this year.”