By John Goralski
The Lady Knights had a lot to cheer about when they cracked the top 15 at last year’s Class L championship race. It marked the first time that the girls team out-shadowed the boys at the finish line. It marked a shift in the program’s expectations and fulfilled the prediction of their coach when he first took the reigns for the Southington program.
It was with a sense of satisfaction that Coach Rich Niro addressed his team at the banquet. Move over boys, he said to his underclassmen. The Southington girls are the ones to beat.
“When I came to town, people told me that Southington girls will never be runners. They told me that they’re not tough enough,” Niro said with a sly grin. “I’m sorry. I’m seeing something completely different. I told the freshman boys team that they should watch out. On paper, our girls are a better team to watch.”
There you have it. The coach threw down the gauntlet, and the Lady Knights were eager for their chance to prove him right.
The Lady Knights burst into the state spotlight in 2012 when their underclassmen edged Simsbury at a freshman race in early September, and they never returned to the shadows. They scored their first winning season in years with a 4-3 record in the challenging CCC West. They went on to score five runners in the top 100 at the Class LL championships with two more finishing just outside that first level.
But the Knights weren’t depleted by graduation. They entered the off-season with a strong core of proven runners and a hunger to take the next step. Southington returns six of their top seven runners from last season’s team, and there’s an excitement bubbling just beneath the surface.
“We’re excited about what we want to do,” said Niro. “They know what they have here. They knew what they need to do. They are exciting to coach because they are so focused on what they can do, and they’re working together to see what they can bring to this team. We’re going to be good.”
How good remains to be seen. Last year, the underclassmen relied on a strong core of veterans to lead the workouts and pace them at varsity meets. Only one finished the season in the top group, but Niro said that the team would not have performed as well without them.
That’s Niro’s biggest question as opening day looms.
“We had such a great senior class last year, but they sort of got overshadowed by the sheer talent and abilities of those young kids—the sophomore and the freshmen,” said the coach. “Now, it’s time for them to step up and lead us. Last year, they were able to follow some good kids and run great. Now, we need them to lead us.”
If the off-season workouts are any indication, they’ll do just fine.
Senior co-captain Lindsey Starr, Nicole Cova, and Abigael Guthrie took the reigns, and each will play a pivotal role as Southington tries to build on last season’s success. On the course, junior Megan Albert returns to set the pace. Last year, Albert cracked the top 50 as a sophomore at the Class L championship race, and Niro expects her times to drop as a junior.
Juniors Amanda Hamel and Christina Trovato both finished in the top 80 last year. Sophomores Jami Pliego and Lauren Perkowski both scored in the postseason as freshman, while junior Raquel Romano finished just outside the top 100.
In addition, sophomores like Gabby Napoli and freshmen like Catherine Myers are already pushing their way into the front group at early time trials. Katherine Mellitt and Julia Reilly both have legitimate claims for a varsity spot, and that’s why Niro is so excited at the start of the season.
“Those top five from last year might not necessarily be our top team this year, and that’s exciting,” said the coach. “They’ve already got me looking to see the best finishes we’ve ever had at the state meet and what that means for us. Can we be the best Southington High School girls team in our school’s history? They want to be.”
It won’t be easy. Southington’s schedule is littered with established powerhouse programs. Conard is returning four seniors from last year’s team that scored a top 10 finish at the state open. Simsbury is a perennial state open qualifier, and Hall has a great tradition.
Niro is going to try to challenge his lineup. He’s going to rest runners in some races and push runners in other contests. It’s designed to give everyone a shot at performing and challenging enough to build a championship level team by season’s end.
“Let’s see how we match up against them. Let’s see what we have at the end of the season when some of these young legs get some more experience,” said Niro. “The only question I have is how we will compete. I’m not sure how we’ll compete at the top level. I don’t know if we can put somebody in the front pack, but we’ve never had to worry about that before. We were always trying to fight for the ninth or 10th spot in the conference, but now we’re looking at girls that might be competing in the top five or so. That’s exciting.”
No matter who rises to the top, Niro said it will be a team effort. The chemistry has never been better. The work ethic has never been stronger…but the goals have never been bigger.
“It’s going to be fun to watch them show what Southington girls can do as runners,” said Niro. “We’re excited, and their excitement is breeding even more excitement. To have a girls group that gets along this well and are willing to work together to challenge one another beyond what they think they can handle? They’re a very fun team, and I think it’s going to be a fun team for people to come and watch.”
These girls are ready to go the distance.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By John Goralski