By John Goralski
There was a swagger to Southington’s boys cross country team as they gathered for a photo with their medals after the first race of the season. There was a confidence in the faces of the girls team as they mingled for the celebration shot.
On Friday, Sept. 12, the Knights surged into the fall season with a good showing at the Blue Dragon Invitational at Veteran’s Park in Middletown. The Blue Knights captured the overall title in the boys race. The Lady Knights were edged by a perennial power to finish second in the girls race.
Southington finished four varsity runners in the top 10. Two boys cracked the top 10 in the junior varsity race, and the Lady Knights captured five of the top 10 positions in the junior varsity girls race.
More importantly, Southington runners learned some valuable lessons about competing at the front of the pack.
“I purposely picked this race to start the season. There are quite a few quality schools in the mix from Class S or SS last year. Some of them went to the open, so I knew that we’d have some quality guys to run against without being one of those crazy meets where they’d be just another face in the crowd,” said first-year coach Dan Dachelet. “It was meant to give them a taste of what it feels like to run out in the front because they haven’t been in that situation too many times.”
In fact, the boys victory marked the first invitational win by the Blue Knights in over a decade. Southington is usually battling against the top teams in the state at conference dual meets and the signature invitational meets, so Dachelet added the Middletown race for a chance to flex his team’s muscles.
It was a dusty course with a lot of turns, so Dachelet challenged his teams to get out early and avoid the congestion.
“These guys worked their butts off during the off-season,” he said. “By the end of the year, they’ll be able to run in the lead packs for the conference and state meets. This was designed to get them used to that because they haven’t been in that situation too many times.”
Sean Garrison (17:53.08) finished just 25 seconds off the lead pace to claim fourth place overall. Mark Murdy (18:24.61) edged a Hale Ray runner by just two seconds to crack into the top 10. Jack Myers (18:35.82) and Brandon Bayron (18:46.19) finished in the top 20. Tom Murdy (19:12.95) scored 24th out of 135 runners.
Adam Theriault (19:37.61) and Jake Aparo (19:55.85) didn’t contribute to the team time, but Southington was the only team to finish all seven runners under 20 minutes. As a team, Southington edged Middletown by almost three minutes. Southington (68 points) won easily, finishing ahead of Middletown (126), Lyme-Old Lyme (152), and Portland (158).
“I talked to the seniors, and they told me that it was the first invitational that they’ve ever won,” Dachelet said. “I was glad to be a part of it, and they were pretty excited. It was nice to see that fire in them, and I think it will carry over to the rest of our season.”
Southington’s runner up finish in the girls race was just as impressive, but Dachelet said that it left him with more questions than answers. Southington scored five runners in the top 25 of the varsity race, but the Lady Knights finished five of the top eight runners in the junior varsity race with paces that rivaled the top varsity runners.
“There’s a lot of depth there, but I still have to make some tough choices down the road,” said the coach. “If you look at their pacing in the junior varsity race, Sarah Minkiewicz would have been our fourth fastest runner. Alize [Rodriguez] would have been sixth, and Maggie Meehan would have been right up there. I had about five JVs that broke into my top seven, and that was crazy.”
It’s not a knock to the varsity runners. As a team, the Knights (75) finished just 30 seconds off the pace of Coginchaug (69) for the win. Portland (89), Haddam-Killingworth (121), and Old Saybrook (122) rounded out the top five.
“Coginchaug is an excellent program. They’re very deep year in and year out, so it was great to see our ladies up there running with those top girls,” said Dachelet. “We had one runner from Coginchaug ahead of us, a girl from H-K, and a couple of girls from Portland. It was fun to watch our ladies push themselves like that.”
Lauren Perkowski (21:55.69) edged teammate Gabi Napoli (22:10.41) for 9th place overall. Catherine Myers (22:21.18) finished 12th. Amanda Hamel (22:56.67) and Megan Albert (23:20.39) rounded out the Lady Knight scoring, while Jami Pliego (23:30.92) and Carson Stifel (24:08.59) both finished in the top third of the race.
“Lauren gave it a shot at the beginning of the race to try to run up front with those other ladies,” said Dachelet. “She just fell off the pace a little bit, but I’d rather she do that and give it a shot. I like that she was a little gutsy and stuck her neck out. I’m happy about what we’ve done so far, but we won’t be able to take any breaks. We’re going to have to push through and get some good volume and intensity in over the next couple of weeks before we start backing them off at mid-season.”
Now, the Knights will measure themselves against their conference and the top teams in the state. On Tuesday, the Knights open their dual meet schedule at NW Catholic. On Saturday, they’ll test themselves at the elite Stratton Brook Invitational in Simsbury.
“We’re getting ready to enter into that part of the season where we have a lot of races,” said Dachelet. “I have to find a way to use it to get them ready for those last championship races. That’s what we’re struggling with right now. We have to get the workouts in between the dual meets and the invitationals without killing their legs. We have to find a way to keep running to get comfortable with that 5:30 pace (6:30-7:00 for the girls). That’s what they’re going to need to be successful at the Wickham championships.”
By John Goralski