By John Goralski

Sports Writer

Lauren Perkowski elbowed her way up the final hill at Wickham Park at the end of the front group of runners. As the sophomore neared the finish line, a crowd of blue jerseys appeared at the bottom of the hill.

In 2010, the Southington girls limped into finish line in last place at the Class LL championship race. Three years later, they were battling in the top 100.

“The difference over the last four or five years—maybe longer—is incredible,” said Southington cross country coach Rich Niro. “The growth that we’ve had is incredible, and the athletes that are coming into the program are working harder and harder. We finished our first girl under 22 minutes last year, but this year we finished five girls under 22 minutes. It was incredible.”

Perkowski (21:18) led the surge, finishing ahead of 100 runners to claim 41st place. Gabi Napoli (21:40) finished just outside the top 50. Amanda Hamel (21:43) and Catherine Myers (21:44) finished just a few steps behind Napoli. Aliza Rodriguez (21:54) capped Southington’s score with the fifth time under 22 minutes, but every one of Southington’s runners finished in the top 100.

Margaret Meehan (22:11) and Raquel Romano (22:58) would have been scorers on every other Southington team, and Niro said that this level of talent has never been seen on a Southington girls team. The Knights finished all five scorers before a handful of teams scored their second runner. The Knights finished six runners before Stamford placed their fastest girl.

Southington’s team time (1:48.19) was just two seconds away from clinching them a berth at the state open meet with a junior, two sophomores, and two freshmen. The overall time was 12 minutes faster than the team ran in 2010.

“If they made to the state open this year, they would have been a year ahead of schedule,” said Niro. “We ran as good of a race as we could today, so we can hold our heads high. This is the best girls cross country team that we’ve ever had. We have better girls sitting and watching today than we’ve had running in previous years.”

In better conditions, the Knights might have been able to claim that elusive state open berth, but temperatures plummeted throughout the day while headwinds continued to build. According to Niro, the course was running at least 15 seconds slower at the end of the day than it did for the earliest division races.

“That hurt us in qualifying with that team time because it’s the top two teams in each class and then the next eight on times,” said the coach. “There were some decent times early in the day, so it was just a little too tough to beat that with the conditions now. It’s too bad, but everybody’s dealt that hand in different years. The good thing is that we’re bringing back everybody that raced today, and we have a lot of others in the stable that are training well. We’re an up-and-coming team, and people know that now. There’s no hiding any more.”

Even the boys team exceeded expectations in the final race of the season. Sophomore Sean Garrison (17:49) led the way, finishing just outside the top 60. Colin Murphy (18:25) cracked the top 100. Damiaen Florian (18:40), Andrzej Bielecki (18:44), and Jack Myers (18:48) scored. Brandon Bayron (18:58) and Matthew Albrecht (19:03) contributed.

Less than 30 seconds separated the Southington pack as they finished 18th out of 26 teams.

“They struggled a little bit with the wind today, but Class LL is just so tough. There were some incredible teams out there,” said Niro. “We were back in the pack, but we finished in a nice, tight group just like we wanted to. Sean Garrison is learning how to run up front, but he’s just a sophomore, too. This team really overachieved this year.”

The race marked the end of the fall campaign, and it’s lifted the bar for next fall. Southington will return all seven girls next season and three of the boys, so Niro’s expectations will be even higher next season.

“This showed how well they’ve all been training,” said the coach. “It’s allowed us to pick each other up when somebody’s having a bad race, and it’s been a great year.”

To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@southingtonobserver.com.

By John Goralski Colin Murphy (18:25) was /></a> By John Goralski</p><p>Page 1 of 2 | <a href='/2013/11/01/4072?wpmp_switcher=mobile&wpmp_tp=1'>Next page</a></p><div class='wpfblike' ><fb:like href='http://southingtonobserver.com/2013/11/01/4072/' layout='default' show_faces='true' width='400' action='like' colorscheme='light' send='false' /></div><div class=