The Leader of the Pack; Rick Black set the pace for a cross country title

By John Goralski

Sports Writer

The Greek god Hermes was said to streak across the heavens in a barely visible blur. The Romans called him Mercury and lent his name to our fastest planet. In paintings and sculptures, he’s shown with wings upon his feet. In myths and poems, he’s described as having the wind at his heels.

Southington’s version was Rick Black, and his stories are just as legendary. He blew through town in the early 1980s, collecting four varsity letters when track was a three year varsity program. He captured two Class LL titles in cross country and paced his teammates to Southington’s only state title as a long distance team.

Wings on his feet? Not quite. Legend has it that Rick Black didn’t need them.

“He was just a great kid, and it was almost pathetic he was so easy to coach. He was serious about what he was doing, and it was his passion,” said former Blue Knight track and cross country coach Wayne Nakoneczny. “There’s no question that he was talented. He couldn’t have done what he did without the physical ability, but he would have probably just been an average runner if it wasn’t for his diligent work. He worked so hard.”

In fact, Nakoneczny said that Black was one of the only athletes that he ever had to send home to rest. Black had just tied a state record at the Class LL meet as a junior, and he showed up on the track the following Monday to prepare for the state open race. The heat continued to build, but Black wouldn’t quit. Nakoneczny remembers throwing in the towel on that Memorial Day practice.

“I actually told him that he had to back off a little bit,” the coach remembered. “It was a hot day. It was a tough workout. We were on the track, and it was right before the outdoor state meet. He did some reps, and I’m talking about half mile reps that were incredible. He was sucking eggs at the end of the workout, but he was eating it up. He wouldn’t quit.”

Black was a runner. He wasn’t interested in anything else. As a kid he played baseball and tried soccer, but it was the running that really captured his imagination. By the time he reached DePaolo Junior High School, Black had committed to his long distance dreams. For two years, he competed with the Patriots until the town slashed the junior high school program at the start of his ninth grade season.

Not one to give up, Black petitioned the school board to be allowed to compete with the high school team. He begged them through the fall and pleaded his case all winter. Finally, they relented. In the spring of his freshman year, Black joined the Blue Knights one year ahead of schedule.

That was the spring where he met his cross country teammates, a group of long distance runners from St. Thomas Junior High School. They had risen to the top of the Catholic school ranks, and Black was the final piece of the puzzle. It set the stage for their rise to the top of the varsity ranks.

“I actually got to meet the coach and train with him in ninth grade, so when I actually went up to the high school we already had the same core of runners—the Cavaliers, the Theriaults, and Marty Burns,” Black said. “We had run together as freshmen even though they had gone to St. Thomas Junior High School, and I went to DePaolo. They were actually faster than I was, so I was lucky that they didn’t really run my event. Had I ran the distance races they did, they would have probably beaten me.”

Even if that was true, it didn’t take long for Black to rise to the top. He earned a varsity letter in the 1500m as a freshman and swept into the lead by start of his sophomore season. Black captured all-conference titles in each of the next three seasons and claimed all-state titles as a sophomore, a junior, and a senior.

As a sophomore he won the Class LL title in the 1500m (4:09.8) and as a member of the 4x100m relay team. As a junior he captured the Class LL title in the 3000m (8:43.24) and eclipsed his winning time in the 1500m by nearly 30 seconds (3:54.08) to set a new state record in the final year of that event. As a senior, Black fought off early season injuries to place second in the 3200m in both the Class LL and state open races.

Almost three decades later, his time in the 3200m (9:12.5) is still the school record.

“Set your goals high. Break down your goals into small steps, and do it,” he said. “Stay focused because, if I can do it, there are plenty of kids that can do it. That’s they key thing. I hope kids say that, if I could rise up to those levels and reach outside myself, they can do it too. That’s the most important thing that coach taught us. He taught us to set goals, dig deep, and strive for things that are bigger than ourselves.”

Black graduated as one of the most accomplished track runners in school history, but it was his cross country accomplishments that really pushed him over the top. For three years, he paced a group of runners to the top of the state rankings.

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