By John Goralski
Joe Pappalardo was caught in a tangle of elbows and knees at the start of the 4x800m relay and was thrown to the ground in a wild stampede. As wave after wave of baton-wielding distance runners trampled him, Pappalardo fought to his feet.
By the second lap, almost half of the field was behind him. In all three legs of the 4x800m relay, Southington athletes had to weave through hand-offs, elbow their way to open space, and battle their way through the melee.
Pappalardo paved the way. Andrew Bielecki followed, and Colin Murphy began to pull away. By the time that Ben Gibbons fought to the finish line, the Knights (9:03.48) had beaten all but one team in the race.
“There were 19 teams starting in the same race, and that made for some crazy, crazy starts and crazy handoffs,” said Blue Knight indoor track coach Annie Groom. “But we still ended up getting second place. That’s because we’ve got smart kids. They’ve got great chemistry, and they’ve been working together for a couple of years now. It just wasn’t a problem. I was concerned about the handoffs, but they were fine.”
On Friday, Jan. 11, the Blue Knight indoor track team battled the crowds at the McReavy Invitational meet in Middletown, and it was a break-out performance for the Southington team. The Knights qualified for the state meet in two more events and just missed a third. They qualified for the conference meet in two others. Wesleyan University’s field house can be too tight for some teams, but Southington embraced the challenge.
“It can be very crowded, and that can be a little overwhelming for runners that aren’t used to it,” said Southington coach Annie Groom, “but they all did a great job.”
Alyssa Lombardi qualified for the Class LL competition with a ninth place finish in the 1600m (5:40.48). Murphy and Gibbons partnered with Mike Sullivan and Kyle Summa to claim a fourth place finish in the 4x400m (3:46) to earn another state berth.
Lauren Perkowski’s time in the 1600m (5:55.2) beat the conference meet qualifying time by just four one hundredths of a second (.04), and Damiean Florian qualified for the CCC meet with his 10th place finish in the 1600 (4:53.79).
“They just clicked,” said Groom. “They keep surprising me at every meet. We changed up their speed workouts, and it really seemed to do the trick. Everything just seemed to come together.”
Seventeen Southington athletes competed at the meet across eight different events with a handful of top 10 finishes. Matt Bennett cleared 43 feet, 5 inches to claim fourth place overall in the shot put. Alyssa Lombardi, Raquel Romano, Sarah Palko, and freshman Jess Howe missed a state qualifying time by just one second in the 4x400m (4:49.4), and Howe went on to place 12th out of 46 runners in the 55-meter dash (8.26) at the elite meet.
“I think it’s been great for the kids’ motivation,” said Groom. “They’re getting to see that all their hard work is paying off. It’s really nice to see the kids with medals and ribbons. I know that they say it’s not a big deal, but it’s a big deal to me. I’m glad that they’re getting something for their efforts.”
With less than two weeks remaining until the conference meet, Groom expects a few more individuals and relays to reach their postseason goals. A handful of athletes will compete this week at a Hartford meet while most of the others head down to New Haven for the Yale Invitational.
On Saturday, Jan. 26, the postseason begins.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.