By JOHN GORALSKI
Coach Rich Niro couldn’t believe his eyes when Sean Garrison appeared at the bottom of the hill at Wickham Park. Finishers were still being counted in single digits, and here was his first Blue Knight elbowing his way to the finish line at the CCC championship race.
On Wednesday, Oct. 16, the coach was hoping for a good performance at the first postseason contest this fall, but Niro never could have predicted the Southington’s surge.
Garrison (17:32.43) cracked the top 20, and the sophomore earned all-conference honors when he crossed the finish line just over a minute later than the fastest runner in the field of more than 150. But that wasn’t the end of the story.
Colin Murphy (17:52.98) cracked the top 35. Damiean Florian (18:08.24) finished well before the 50th runner, while Matt Albrecht (18:30.94) and Andrew Bielecki (18:33.94) battled into the top 75.
Brandon Bayron (18:37.38) and Jack Myers (19:12.10) didn’t score for the Knights, but even they finished in the top 100 of the prestigious conference race.
When officials announced that the Blue Knight boys had claimed seventh place overall and fourth place in the CCC West, Niro couldn’t believe his ears.
“They really surprised me, but they’ve been surprising me all season,” said the coach. “There were some question marks on that team at the start of the season, but they’ve really worked hard to fill any holes and have really picked each other up. If you told me at the beginning of the year that we were going to be the seventh team at the CCC championships, that we’d finish with a winning record, and that we’d beat Conard, a team that we lost to early on, I would have been more than a little surprised.”
Even though a sophomore paced the group, Niro credits his senior leadership. Murphy, a senior co-captain, increased his pace to help the team overcome an illness in the starting group. Florian, Albrecht, and Bielecki each surpassed expectations to help catapult the Knights past Conard at the finish.
Their finish has raised Niro’s hopes and expectations for his team’s chances at the state meet.
“The boys will be long shot, but if some of these other teams make a mistake we’re the kind of team that can pick up that last spot to the state opens,” he said. “If Jack gets healthy, and the senior pack continues to run well, we could do it, but we’re still a long shot.”
The girls, on the other hand, continue to prove that this might be the year. Even without a top 20 finish, the Lady Knights climbed their way into the top 10 in the girls race and fourth place in the CCC West.
Lauren Perkowski (21:03.33) set the pace in the race’s top 40. Gabi Napoli (21:34.69) finished just outside the top 50. Catherine Myers (21:37.47), Amanda Hamel (22:05.03), and Raquel Romano (22:33.31) scored. Megan Albert (23:37.92) and Abby Guthrie (23:47.82) contributed, and Southington placed all seven runners in the top 100 of the girls race.
“It’s tough to describe how much this team has improved without talking about the numbers,” said Niro. “We’re deeper than we’ve ever been. We’re better than we’ve ever been. Our team time from the top 5 girls was 1 hour, 48 minutes, 25 seconds, and that’s almost two minutes faster than our best time that we ever ran. This team is improving by leaps and bounds even though we have a few people struggling with injuries and bad luck.”
Now, the girls will take a shot at the state meet, and Niro said that it could be a special day if everything falls in place. Southington will return to the Manchester park this Saturday (Oct. 26) for the Class LL championship race.
The boys are scheduled to start at 3:10 p.m. with the girls following at 3:40 p.m. Now, the team will start to taper their workouts, and Niro hopes that the times will continue to drop. That’s an exciting prospect for the girls team.
“We still need to pick up about 10 seconds per girl to be a state open team, but we could do that,” said Niro. “It would be incredible. Southington High School has never sent a girls team to the state opens, and it would be a year ahead of schedule. To have a shot with three freshman and two sophomores is impressive.”
Can this year’s Knights go the distance?
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By JOHN GORALSKI