Ocean County has not been a cross country hotbed in recent years, but two runners from neighboring towns are quickly changing that with their performance over the fall season.

Point Pleasant Boro junior Devin Hart and Brick senior Damien Dilcher extended their memorable seasons on Nov. 25 by qualifying for the Foot Locker National Championship Race in San Diego, which goes off on Saturday at Balboa Park at 1 p.m. E.T.

The 5K race will feature the top 10 qualifiers from four regions across the U.S., with Hart and Dilcher qualifying out of the Northeast Region thanks to their respective performances on Nov. 25. Dilcher took second place in the entire region with a time of 15:37 while Hart finished sixth at 15:42 – just five seconds behind Dilcher.

“It’s great to have a guy like him on the course,” Hart said of Dilcher. “We’ve pushed each other to some great times. He likes to take it out fast, although this will be a hard race to do that. I’m sure we’ll be pretty close on the course, but it’s just good to see a familiar face. I don’t think Ocean County’s ever had anyone in this race, much less two people from neighboring towns.”

Brick senior Damien Dilcher (left) and Point Boro junior Devin Hart (right) will represent Ocean County and N.J. in the Foot Locker 5K National Championship on Saturday. (Photo provided by Brendan Hart)

Hart has been building to this opportunity since he broke onto the local scene as a promising freshman. In his first year, he placed sixth in Ocean County with a time of 16:11 and followed that up with a fourth-place finish in the South Jersey Group II race at 16:13.58.

The next fall, he won the Ocean County Championship as a sophomore with a time of 15:28, but his real breakout came in the spring, when he captured the state championship at the Meet of Champions in the 3200 meters.

“My goal as a freshman was to eventually win the Meet of Champs,” Hart said. “When I won the 3200 in the spring, that surprised me a little bit. Success came a little quicker than I thought it would and I think that pushed me to keep going and to see how good I could be.”

That race catapulted him into this year, during which Hart dominated N.J. competition. He won all four championship races he competed in during this past season leading up to Regionals, including the Ocean County, Central Jersey Group II, Group II and Meet of Champions races. He did not run in the Shore Conference race.

“The Meet of Champs race I ran this year is probably the kind of race I’ll try to run,” Hart said. “I sat in like fourth place or so for the first mile-and-a-half and then turned it up. This is going to be on a much bigger scale, so I just have to be mentally prepared to not be in the lead against this field. It’s going to be a new experience because I’ve never run at this kind of level before.”

Dilcher’s performance two Saturday’s ago marked a big bounceback effort for the senior, who place 31st at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions on Nov. 18 at 16:28 and sixth at the Group III Championships a week earlier. Prior to that, he finished second behind Hart in the Ocean County Championships at 15:14 and won the Shore Conference Championships at 15:02.

The second-place performance at Regionals signifies a transformation over the course of the last two years for Dilcher, who has never placed at the Meet of Champions in either cross country or outdoor season in the spring. His Shore Conference championship was the first scholastic championship race he won during his high school career.

Both Hart and Dilcher are aiming for one more big performance in order to earn All-American status. The top 15 finishes in the race are recognized as Foot Locker All-Americans, which Dilcher is hoping to achieve as a capper to his final cross country season and Hart is aiming to do as a junior with one more year to climb even higher.

“You never know how a race is going to go until you get in it,” Hart said. “I’m just hoping I can run how I want to run and hopefully I’ll end up with All-American status. I think that would be a good way to end the season, especially if Damien can do it as well.”