Van der Merwe, the replacement for Franziska Putz, who was sick and unable to participate, came in 24th with a time of 21:49, helping the Lakers to their third consecutive group title on Saturday. Mountain Lakes' last two championhips were in Group II. They have four overall.
"I was nervous," Van der Merwe said. "I was never on this course before and I never ran in a big race like this. I was suprised I was 24th."
The Lakers, who scored 64 points, narrowly beat out Kinnelon, which had 66. Colette Richter led the way for Mountain Lakes, finishing first in 18:56. Jenny Picot (fifth), Nicole Allison (ninth), Van der Merwe and Brannagh Walker (32) also figured into the team scoring.
Parker Caton, normally among Mountain Lakes' top seven, couldn't run, either, because of a sore hip and junior Cat Beimfohr filled in.
"Jean-Marie stepped in and ran very well," Richter said. "It was a nice surprise. I had a feeling we could win but it was iffy."
A week before, the Lakers took top honors in Section 1, Group I.
"I had a good day," Van der Merwe said. "I tried my best and gave it my all. I had fun. I was able to finish strong."
The Group I championship was the first for Richter. In 2010, her former teammate, Kristen Landry, now at James Madison University, claimed the title, posting a 19:08.
Richter, a junior, fought it out with Point Pleasant senior Brianna Feerst (19:31) for half of the race. At the top of the bowl, Richter surged.
"I kept on having random surges," said Richter, who was nursing a mild cold. "I thought 'Keep going. Keep going.' I had to have a smart race. I couldn't go too fast and I had to watch my breathing because I was a little bit congested."
Sussex Tech junior Allison McCurry was third in 19:55 in the Group I race. Alyssa Vasallo, a Whippany Park senior, and Kinnelon senior Johanna Goergen were 11th and 12th, respectively, but will not compete in the Meet of Champions because only the top 10 qualified.
Mendham sophomore Mackenzie Barry took first in Group III in 18:38, edging out Ariana North of Northern Highlands.
Like Richter, Barry, second to Tara Hanley at the Morris County Championships last Tuesday, took control after the bowl.
"I'm happy," Barry said. "I felt tired in the beginning but told myself I needed to run through it and help my team. I pushed myself. I kicked myself. I needed to pick up the pace."
The group races capped a hectic week for Morris runners, who had three races in eight days.
Barry was elated to have a surprise visit from Whippany Park graduate Emily DeCaro, a friend she met at running camp in seventh grade. DeCaro made the trip from SUNY-Cortland to see Barry run.
Sarah DiSanza of High Point (third, 19:04), Claudia DiSomma of Sparta (sixth, 19:16), Abby Seel of Mendham (eighth, 19:29) and Kylene Cochrane of West Morris (10th, 19:41) turned in excellent efforts in Group III and will compete in the MOC on Saturday, Nov. 19.
Morristown captured the Group III team championship. Figuring into the scoring for the Colonials, who had 131 points, were senior Nicole Gomez (13th), Christine O'Kane (23rd), Clarice Bourland (32nd), Emma Cary (38th) and Marissa Lerit (60th).
In the Group II race, Chatham senior Tara Hanley, the Morris County champion, was in the lead nearly all the way. She was overtaken by Bernards' Dana Giordano coming out of the woods near the end. Hanley crossed the finish line four seconds behind Giordano.
"We battled," Hanley said. "She just outkicked me in the kill zone."
Hanley said being second already caused her to think about how she'll handle the MOC.
"I won't make a move too early," she said. "I'll save it until later. I've got to keep the momentum going."
Hanover Park senior Caroline Wolfe was sixth in Group II with a time of 19:10. Wolfe was 16th at the sectional last year and didn't qualify for the state championships so this was a vast improvement.
"I give credit to my coaches for giving me the right workouts," Wolfe said. "They're harder. I've done more tempo runs. Andy (Cope), another coach, has been a big help, too. I've been preparing for this."
She won't make any goals for next week because she doesn't want to "psyche myself out."
Randolph's Sam Jones came in fourth in Group IV with an 18:57. Jones' strategy was to "hang back" and work her way up.
"I was probably 14th or something like that for much of the race," Jones said. "I began to pick people off after the bowl. I've been fatigued this season so my approach has been to stay back and finish strong."
Jones' freshman teammate, Carole Harsch, took ninth in 19:29. Roxbury's Olivia Viparina was 10th. The Rams were second as a team behind Hillsborough.
Pope John, buoyed by Tess Keller, was the runner-up to Red Bank Catholic in Non-Public A. Keller was third in 19:48, qualifying for the MOC.
Megan Curham of Villa Walsh was the highest local finisher in Non-Public B, taking 13th.