By John Goralski
Lauren Perkowski emerged from the woods in a sea of red jerseys and elbowed for position as they wound their way down one of the course’s steep hills. Her teammate, Sean Garrison, had already prevailed in the boys race, outlasting all but one on Southington’s new and improved cross-country course.
There were no course records, and that’s by design. The YMCA Camp Sloper course has been reworked to pose a challenge for the top runners in the state. But for those that survive it, Southington’s home course is the best training possible for the upcoming state meet.
“We debuted this course last year, and we’ve already gotten a lot of positive feedback,” said Blue Knight cross country coach Rich Niro. “We know that it’s slow. It’s a true 5K course, and it’s got two nasty hills in it. There are no forgiving surfaces. You’re on trail, on gravel, and on grass. That takes a lot out of you. It’s not like running a road race. This is cross country, and this course is what cross country’s about.”
It still has the two loops around the picturesque lake. It still criss-crosses the open fields before runners plunge into the woods, but the new course takes advantage of the rising hills at the back of the park with two steep climbs that rival the famed ‘green monster’ at the state meet.
Niro rolled it out last year in a dual meet against Simsbury. On Tuesday, Sept. 17, the Knights welcomed Conard and NW Catholic in a rugged tri-team battle. NW Catholic struggled. Conard, a state powerhouse, proved their mettle, and Southington survived a good early-season measure with a strong showing.
“It looked like a first race, but I saw a lot of good things,” said Niro. “We had a lot of good, young runners. I saw a lot of good times in the pack. The varsity is probably a step off of where they want to be at this point in the season, but that’s what we’ve been planning for with our training.”
Garrison held his own against Conard’s experienced squad. Alec Ferguson-Hull finished the course in 18 minutes, 13.23 seconds, but Garrison (18:28.38) finished just a few steps behind him. Damiaen Florian (18:53.24) finished fourth overall as one of five runners to break 19 minutes on the course.
“It didn’t surprise me. These are guys that have been running for a long time,” said Niro. “They ran this course smart, and they didn’t let it eat them up.”
Andrew Bielecki (19:05.27), Matt Albrecht (19:19.52), and Colin Murphy (19:29.33) scored for the Knights with top 10 finishes. Jack Myers (19:41.75) and Brandon Bayron (19:46.92) contributed. Conard edged the Knights, 23-32, but Southington shutout NW Catholic, 15-48.
For the girls, the race offered a chance to measure themselves against one of the best cross country teams in the state on a course as difficult as the state meet. Conard returns four seniors from last year’s conference championship team, and Southington countered with a solid core of juniors and sophomores.
Perkowski (21:59) led from the start and held the lead throughout much of the early race. Southington’s sophomore placed fifth overall and finished within a minute of Conard’s senior frontrunner Liz Lagoy (21:00). Niro said that this is right where they wanted her to be at the start of the season against Conard’s senior stars.
“We didn’t think that she’d be able to race them stride for stride, but she ran with them for a good portion of the race,” said Niro. “I hope that she saw how they raced, and she’ll learn from this. This was the kind of day that will pay off later this season and down the road.”
In addition, Gabi Napoli (22:44) and Amanda Hamel (23:03) claimed top 10 finishes in the front of a tightly-packed Lady Knight roster. Catherine Myers (23:05) and Raquel Romano (23:23) scored for the Knights. Megan Albert (23:35) and Abby Guthrie (23:57) contributed as Southington finished 27 girls under 30 minutes.
“You might not see it in our times in the middle of our pack, but this team has done a lot of training,” said Niro. “They’re running with a lot of pride, and we finished more girls under 30 minutes than we’ve ever done…and it’s a tough course.”
Conard won the girls race, 16-43, but Southington finished 15 runners before NW Catholic’s second finisher. Southington beat NW Catholic, 19-44.
Both Southington teams finished with a 1-1 record at the meet.
On Saturday, Sept. 20, the Knights sent an abbreviated squad of varsity runners to Strattonbrook Park in Simsbury for the first invitational meet of the fall season.
Garrison (17:54.98) led the boys team with a top 25 finish. Myers (18:19.38) placed in the top 25. Albrecht (18:58.51), Bielecki (19:09.7), and Dylan Sperry (19:39.31) scored as the Knights captured sixth place in the large schools competition.
Perkowski (21:42.52) finished 35th in the girls race, and Napoli (22:16.61) scored in the top 50. Katherine Mellitt (24:14.02), Julia Reilly (24:32.26), and Kali Pliego (25:05.44) scored for the Lady Knights. With just five girls in the varsity race, Southington finished 12th.
The race has been a good test for Southington’s youth in recent years, and 2013 was no exception. Catherin Myers finished second in the freshman race to pace five Lady Knights in the top 25. Southington finished first in the girls freshman race.
Mark Murdy placed fourth in the boys race as the Blue Knight freshman claimed second place overall.