By John Goralski
An inflatable arch marked the finish line. Streamers traced the course at YMCA Camp Sloper, and throngs of fans chased the pack as it criss-crossed the Southington park.
For four years, the annual Sloper Relays has been a welcomed break from the rigors of the varsity season. This year, it exploded into a regional event.
Eleven different programs converged on Camp Sloper. Five area programs lined up for the middle school race that followed. Buses lined up near the pavilion with boosters running grills filled with hot dogs and hamburgers. YMCA officials diverted cars into overflow spaces on nearby fields.
What used to be a small fundraising race sponsored by Southington and Wethersfield has turned into the place to be.
“We’re going to continue to keep growing this as much as the facility can hold,” said Blue Knight cross country coach Dan Dachelet. “Our biggest challenge this year was handling the crowds. With high school kids, you might get one or two parents on the course. With the middle school kids, they seemed to bring their aunts, uncles, and grand parents. It was great.”
The main event featured two and four person relays on a 10K course around the park. Two person co-ed teams elbowed past four person boys and girls squads in a relay event designed to promote teamwork and chemistry.
Last year, Southington assembled teams to try to beat the field. This year, the Knights opted for a unified approach, partnering the top varsity runners with the hardest working junior varsity teammates. It created interesting pairing for the Southington coach.
Anthony Riccio and Adam Theriault (34:24) were the top finishers for the Southington team, capturing 11th place overall and fifth in the two boys division. Maggie Meehan and Katherin Mellitt (40:24) finished second in the two girls division, while Kelly Koba, Jacob Mohr, Ashley Nafis, and Tom Murdy (40:20) edged Jasmin Cahill, Jordan McMeans, Jessica Gesnaldo, and James Weil (40:28) for fourth place in the four person co-ed standings.
“Usually the frontrunners are the only ones that have a shot at the excitement of coming in up front. If you look at our results, those kids that actually won awards were our two middle kids,” Dachelet said. “By putting the faster runners second they were able to constantly pass people throughout the course, and the younger kids had the pressure of knowing that a varsity guy was depending upon them. I think that was exciting. I’m not saying that we’ll do it next year because I like our kids to win those cookies.”
Medals and ribbons are replaced by trays of cookies in the friendly event. Dachelet said that he enjoyed the mid-season break.
“It was devised four years ago with the head coach at Wethersfield and [former Blue Knight coach] Rich Niro,” Dachelet said. “They wanted to create something that’s fun. Not that running races and setting personal records isn’t fun, but this is a different sort of fun. You can see it with the atmosphere. This is a very unique event. I’ve never seen anything like this with a cross country race, and I loved it.”
In an effort to grow the event, officials opened the race to middle school athletes. Athletes from DePaolo and Kennedy battled against runners from Smith Middle School, St. John Paul II Middle School, and Plainville in a 5K meet that followed the varsity race.
“We were glad to have those middle school kids and give them an idea about what it’s like to run in a big event like this,” said Dachelet. “They did fantastic, and this is the future of Southington cross country. We were excited to see so much talent and do our part to encourage them to stick with this great sport.”
DePaolo (28) scored five runners in the top 10 to capture the girls race. Morgan Hubert, Lauren Verilli, Samantha Przyblski, Julia Minchowicz, and Emily Swanson scored. Brianna Harris and Lily Scalise contributed.
Smith (44) edged Kennedy (58) for second place, but all five scorers for Kennedy finished in the top 15. Taylor Borla, Kelsey Fernandez, Brooke Lynch, Ashley Schifler, and Emma Doran scored. Emily Solomon and Amanda Perkowski contributed.
Anthony Sagnella (DePaolo) finished first in the middle school boys race to lift DePaolo (49) over Kennedy (75) for second place. Smith (26) scored four of the top five finishes to win the team competition.
Sagnella, Matt Penna, Derek Guida, Bryce Fournier, and Ryan Asido scored for DePaolo. Chris Chaplinsky and Luke Tedeschi contributed. Jehvanni Morgan, Tucker Raymond, Dylan Olson, Kolby Rogers, and Jordan Rinaldi scored for Kennedy. Mickey Gurzenda and Michael Lewicki contributed.
By John Goralski