By John Goralski
Parents and boosters huddle around gas grills at the edge of the pavilion, while groups of athletes stroll around the field in a wash of fall colors. On Friday, Sept. 27, YMCA Camp Sloper looked more like a fall festival than a competitive racing meet, and that’s just what officials want at the 2013 Sloper Relays.
The mid-season challenge has become an oasis for distance athletes, and it’s a chance for good-natured ribbing among teammates and across programs. The unique co-ed meet has swelled to 10 teams with almost 200 athletes competing across five divisions, and it has grown into a good team-building exercise in a sport that celebrates the individual.
“The athletes say that they love to come out here because this is for fun,” said Blue Knight cross country coach Rich Niro. “It’s great to take the time to enjoy running for fun and racing just to see how good you are without having to worry about team scores. It’s a really nice change for a lot of these athletes with all the pressure that’s put on them during the season.”
Don’t misunderstand. This is a fierce competition, but it’s unlike anything else on the cross-country schedule. Instead of herding teams of boys or girls onto 5K courses, the Sloper Relays consists of four 1.5-mile loops on a special flat-course designed for speed.
Two and four-person teams challenge the course with boys and girls teaming up against all-boy teams or all-girls squads in a mad dash for supremacy. Niro said that there’s something for everybody, and it’s a good chance to pair up mis-matched athletes to see how they compete or load a relay team to try to dominate the field.
Winners claim plates of cookies instead of trophies, and bragging rights become the biggest prize.
“I really like the coed teams. When do you ever get to do that in high school?” said Niro. “It allows them to work with their teammates in a different way, and it’s sometimes teammates that you never get to work with.”
Take senior co-captain Andrzej Bielecki and up-and-coming freshman Catherine Myers. When an illness scratched Bielecki’s teammate from the competition, Myers was thrust into an unlikely pairing, but the two rallied for a third place finish in the one boy-one girl division. Their time of 37 minutes, 11 seconds came within 30 seconds of the fastest time.
Or look at the four person co-ed division. Niro stacked a relay with state level runners. Sean Garrison, Jack Myers, Gabi Napoli, and Lauren Perkowski finished their relay in 35:43 to set a new division record (35:01) and beat their nearest competitors by almost 45 seconds.
Other programs did the same thing. Bristol Central stacked their two-boys team, and Josh Signore and Justin Zaino ran two legs apiece to post the best time of the day (32:43). Cheshire won the four boys division, and Bristol Central edged Megan Albert and Amanda Hamel (41:20) for the two girls division title.
When Catherine Myers was shifted to her co-ed race, it caused Alize Rodriguez to run two legs of the four-girls division race, but she teamed with Nickolina Doran and Margaret Meehan to capture the division title (42:26).
Niro said that the relay is a good way to create a competition for an off-day workout, and that should benefit everybody down the road.
“To run one and a half miles is easier than any other race,” said the coach. “Even if you run two laps, it’s still shorter than a full 5,000 meters. We use a flat course. It’s a beautiful place to run at a beautiful time of year. You really can’t lose.”
Southington’s only varsity race was a mis-matched tri-team meet in Newington against powerhouse Simsbury and the Newington host team. Simsbury placed nine of the top 10 finishers in the boys race. The Trojans scored the top six finishers in the girls race. Southington crushed Newington in both competitions, 15-50 (girls) and 16-47 (boys), but Simsbury swept everybody.
“It was a meet of disparities,” said Niro. “Simsbury’s boys and girls are both top 10 teams, and we are just not quite there yet. We’re still a little young to compete with teams at that level right now, and we were able to beat Newington solidly. That enabled us to conserve our legs a little bit for the end of the season. They didn’t have to run quite as hard, but they still worked together to have a great workout. Down the road, when we’re looking at the end of the season, I think this will be an important day for us.”
With his ninth place finish, Colin Murphy (18:50) was the only boy to place in the top 10. Amanda Hamel (22:33) edged Perkowski (22:34) to claim seventh place in the girls race.
Damiaen Florian (19:17), Garrison (19:25), Jack Myers (19:26), and Kyle Summa (20:04) scored for the boys. Catherine Myers (22:57), Raquel Romano (23:48) and Margaret Meehan (23:54) scored for the girls.
Both teams are holding their own at 2-2 overall.