By BRIAN JENNINGS
Conner Leone was trailing behind a pack of runners as he made his way up the hill to the home stretch of the race. He saw the spectators leaning over the fence, cheering the runners on. He also saw his teammates and coach cheering him on.
“I saw his eyes as he was running,” said Southington coach Dan Dachelet. “He was determined and focused on a finish line uphill that was a long way away. That’s what it takes to be a great runner. You can’t coach that. You either got it, or you don’t.”
Conner Leone fought for every inch of green in front of him as he charged towards the finish line. He surged past a pack of runners that contained Cheshire’s No.4 runner in the thick of it. He finished the race in 83rd place (17:49), one second better than Cheshire’s No. 4 runner.
Conner Leone’s last-second efforts helped to propel the boys team into the state open for the first time in the new millennium at the Class LL meet at Wickham Park in Manchester on Saturday, Oct. 31. The boys team finished 10th by place (316) and 12th by time (1:27.35) out of 24 schools, one spot better than Cheshire (317, 1:27.12).
Southington also advanced the girls team to the open for the first time in the school’s history, making it the first time that both boys and girls teams will compete in the open together, and the first time that the Lady Knights have qualified as a team for the state open.
The girls finished sixth by place (178) and sixth by time (1:45.02) out of 21 schools. Glastonbury (74) won the Class LL girls title by place. Staples (1:39:50) finished the meet with the best time.
Gabi Napoli (20:09) set a personal best and cracked the top 20 with a 16th-place finish out of 156 runners. Just one week ago, she was unable to finish the conference meet, but she returned at the Class LL to run 21 seconds faster than her time at the Wickham Invitational two weeks ago.
Isabella Scalise (21:01), Sarah Minkiewicz (21:03), Lauren Perkowski (21:22), and Catherine Myers (21:27) scored for the Knights with top-50 finishes. Marisa Matthews (21:38) and Carson Stifel (22:29) contributed.
Hannah Debalsi (18:14) of Staples won the race for the third straight year, edging Newtown’s Sarah Mawdsley (19:17) by more than a minute.
Six out of seven runners on the boys team chipped 10 seconds or more from their times at the conference meet, as Southington scored 1:21 faster than last week’s conference race. Amity won the Class LL boys title by place (93) and time (1:22.59).
Sean Garrison (16:48) paced the Knights with a top 25 finish out of 178 runners. Mark Murdy (17:03) pared 28 seconds off his previous time to finish 35th overall. Tom Murdy (17:41), Conner Leone (17:49), and Shane Leone (18:14) rounded out the scoring. Adam Theriault (18:20), and Jordan McMeans (18:30) contributed.
“Everyone did exactly what they were supposed to do,” said Dachelet. “There were, maybe, a couple average performances, but by-and-large, everyone had an outstanding day. There were significant personal records across the board. You want to peak at the right time and everyone did that today. As a coach, you can’t ask for anything more from these guys.”
Eric Vanderels (15:52) of Brien McMahon won the race, followed by Gabriel Altopp (15:57) of Ridgefield, and Randall Neish (15:59), but that’s only the story on paper. Coming up the finishing hill on the closing stretch, Vanderels trailed Altopp by a hair, with Neish not far behind.
As the top pair approached the dividing rope between the opening hill and finishing hill, they started to veer off to the wrong side, the opening hill. After being directed back over to the finishing hill, Vanderels swung his body over from the outside to sweep to the inside and take a sizable lead on Altopp. Yet, both runner lost momentum as from the mishap, adding unwanted seconds to their times.
Southington hopes to continue their historic charge through the postseason on Friday, Nov. 6 when they return to Wickham Park for the Connecticut State Open race for a chance to advance a cross country team (either boys or girls) to the New England Championships for the first time in the school’s history.
The girls race is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m., followed by the boys race at 2:45 p.m.
Southington’s only cross country state title came off of the heels of the boys team when they claimed the Class LL and state open titles in 1984. However, the New England Championships were not yet established, therefore, Southington could not advance any further.
Hall of famer Rick Black (16:04.04) led the way with a third-place finish at the 1984 state open.