Caitlin DeSousa held steady with St. Rose's Tilly O'Connor (right) and Immaculate Heart's Leanna Johnston (left) before taking off in the last half mile. Contributed photo by Caitlin DeSousa
Caitlin DeSousa held steady with St. Rose's Tilly O'Connor (right) and Immaculate Heart's Leanna Johnston (left) before taking off in the last half mile. Contributed photo by Caitlin DeSousa
Cate DeSousa and Josh Huisman both experienced disappointment in past NJSIAA Meet of Champions events.  

This winter, frustration turned into elation.

DeSousa, a Red Bank Catholic High School senior, claimed the first MOC title of her career by winning the 3200 in a PR (personal record) of 10:16 at the Ocean Breeze Track & Field facility in Staten Island, N.Y., Mar. 5.

It was the nation’s fifth best indoor time this year and was 10 seconds faster than second-place finisher Leanna Johnston of Immaculate Heart Academy, Washington Township. St. Rose High School, Belmar’s Tilly O’Connor was third in 10:35.

Huisman, a St. Rose junior, gained his first MOC gold by uncorking a winning shot put throw of 62-feet, ¾-inches. He outdistanced second-place Nick Frattina of Mount Olive High School, Flandres, by 5½-feet.

Prior to this winter, DeSousa had competed in eight other MOC races. The closest she came to victory was a second-place finish in the 1600 last spring, when she finished 1 second behind the winner.

The Oceanport native said last spring’s near-miss provided motivation.

“Coming into freshman year my goal was to win an MOC title,” DeSousa said. “Obviously time’s running out. I only had one season left after this and you never know what’s gonna happen (in the spring) season. So I really wanted to get it this season,” she said.

Although he has another year remaining, Huisman was also hoping to garner a victory after some disappointing trips to the MOC. He finished fourth outdoors last spring; but felt believed it could have been better.

“At last year’s indoor MOCs, I fouled all three attempts, which is something that really motivated me to do good at this meet,” he said. “At outdoors in 2022, I did get a PR (58-6¾) but continued to foul most of my attempts,and was inconsistent. The nerves really got to me during these past MOCs, which I took as a learning experience and used those experiences to improve the way I go into these big meets.”

Despite her past experience, DeSousa admitted to feeling pre-meet jitters. But older brother Chris, now running at Penn State, was home for spring break and joined her in warm-ups. She calmed down, and a well-rested body took over.  

“I definitely felt good going into it,” De Sousa said. “My legs felt fresh. I didn’t race for two weeks before that. My mindset was ‘I don’t care what my time is, I just want to win this race.’ When I crossed the line I was so excited. And I had a fast time so that was kind of like the cherry on top. This was something I wanted for a very long time.”

DeSousa’s time beat her previous indoor PR by 11 seconds and outdoor PR by nine seconds. The strategy was to hang with the frontrunners, so she latched onto Johnston and O’Connor for the first mile-and-a-half. At that point, De Sousa decided to take off.

“At states I went for it with about 500 (meters) to go, but I wanted to go from a little further out this time to see what I could do,” she explained. “My coach (Rob DeFilippis) told me when I took control of the race I had to make a statement and take control hard. So when I moved into first with about a half-mile left, I tried to go really hard. My last 800 was a 2:23, so I was happy with that.”

DeSousa felt going for the win that early was basically due to a fearless mindset.

“I was pretty confident in myself and my ability to close just because of practicing my miles and my 800; I knew my legs were there to back me up,” she said. “It was a matter of having the courage to go for it. I think it was more mental than physical.”

The faith-driven DeSousa – who previously told The Monitor Magazine “I know that even when it gets hard on the course, God is looking over me and believing in me,” –  qualified for two events by winning both the 1600 and 3200 in the Non-Public A state championship meet. She ran both on the same day for just the second time in her career.

“I wanted to give myself some kind of an option for the Meet of Champs,” said DeSousa, who chose the 3200 in MOC because of her strong showing at states. “Honestly (doing a double) wasn’t too bad. I thought it’d be a lot worse.”

DeSousa will be taking her skills to the University of Virginia next year, choosing the Charlottesville school for both its academics and athletics. Huisman has another year to make his college decision.  

Huisman took first in the shot this winter at every meet but one (finishing second). Included were gold medals in the Monmouth County, Shore Conference and Non-Public B meets. He hit a PR with his toss of 62-3¼ at the MOC.

“On my final throw the crowd got a thunderclap going, which got me hyped, and I threw the 62-footer,” he said. “I knew it was a PR, but it wasn't 63-feet, which was my goal for that meet. Although there are some improvements I still need to make, I felt fast and created torque, which was something I had been working on in the weeks leading up to the meet.”

Huisman, a member of St. Rose Parish, Belmar, said he makes sure to include the Lord in his life and athletic career.

“I always try to improve my relationship with God and be mindful and thankful for the talent he has given me, and I try to follow his Word,” Huisman said. “I often pray and meditate before meets to prepare my mind for competing, which helps immensely. I also found that being close to God helps me have a clear mind for everything else in life.”

Huisman had an interesting foray into the track & field world. Growing up, his goal was to play basketball until his family convinced him to play a pick-up game against his brother. If he won, Huisman could pursue hoops. If he lost, he would do track & field, a sport in which many of his family members have enjoyed success.  

“I lost the bet,” Huisman said. “I ended up doing track and haven’t looked back.”

Like DeSousa, Huisman felt confident entering the Meet of Champions.

“I knew that I had done the work in the prior months and was excited to compete,” Huisman said. “That day I was focused and calm, which is something I rarely feel for big meets, so I was really happy that I felt that way.”

He felt even better when it ended.

“Winning an MOC has been a goal of mine since I started throwing,” Huisman said. “To join the list of MOC legendary shot put winners (from St. Rose) like Luke Grodeska and Nick Vena and many others is a great honor for me. And the fact I threw a PR was the cherry on top.”

Purple Roses winter coach Kaitlyn Lavender felt a guy like Huisman deserved such an honor.

“We’re all very proud of Josh and excited to see his hard work pay off,” Lavender said. “Josh is very self-motivated and focused when it comes to throwing, but is also a great teammate. He’s very connected to the high school throwing community and supports the efforts of his competitors. We can’t wait to see what he does this spring and next year.”

Other MOC medal winners included RBC’s Patrick Coyle (4th, 1600), St. Rose’s Brian Theobald (7th, 1600), and CBA’s Nick Sullivan (2nd, 3200), Joe Barrett (6th, 3200), 4x400 relay (5th), 4x800 relay (5th) and Tristan McFarlane (7th, high jump).