Cross Country: Off-season mileage raises postseason expectations

By BRIAN JENNINGS

STAFF WRITER

Generally, every year, Southington coach Dan Dachelet has seen runners sweep into the fall season with several hundred summer miles under their belts. But the number of runners over the 400-mile mark coming into this season is higher than it’s ever been during Dachelet’s four-year tenure with the program.

What’s the explanation for the sudden change? These Southington runners are hungry.

“By and large every year, we get a number of kids that are serious about doing this that are over 400 miles,” the coach said. “But I think if I were to crunch some numbers, we would see a significantly higher percentage of maybe 40 to 50 percent of kids that are over that mileage.”

Over his tenure, Dachelet has tried to instill a culture that would help Southington become a powerhouse at postseason meets. No more does Southington pay an appearance fee just to show up. The Knights are now striving to run with the big dogs in the state and finish near the top.

That didn’t happen last fall though. The program fell short of qualifying either team for last year’s state open after qualifying both teams the year prior, and that’s been the motivation for 2017.

In order to get back to that high level of competition, Dachelet said that he wants to start the fall off the right way. One way to do that is by putting more emphasis on longer tempos during the initial stretch of the season.

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“I think that’s a key aspect to the training,” said Dachelet. “We did quite a few interval workouts, and they’re certainly helpful. But I think the mental toughness that comes from doing longer, threshold-style runs is incredibly beneficial.”

Being in one of the toughest divisions and conferences in the state won’t make it easy. Either Southington team can have a career day, but still lose the race.

Having the mental capacity to shake those races lose from the memory bank going forward is what Dachelet said will be key to performing consistently at a high level and having a successful season.

“They have to keep it all into perspective, as to what the eventual goal is and what their capabilities are,” the coach said. “If they lose or don’t have a good day, they need to be able to wipe the slate clean, move on, and refocus on the next race.”

After a new realignment of the CCC, both boys and girls teams are now in the West Colonial Division of the West Region with Conard, Hall, and Northwest Catholic. The West Patriot Division features Avon, Farmington, Glastonbury, and Simsbury.

Besides conference meets, Southington is also scheduled to compete in the Stratton Brook Invitational at Simsbury High School, the Sloper Relays, Frank Kelley Invitational at Wrentham Park in Massachusetts, and the Wickham Park Invitational in Manchester. The Frank Kelley Invitational is a new meet for the Knights this season.

“It’s got to be as big, if not bigger, than the Wickham Park Invite,” said Dachelet. “There are thousands of kids on a championship-style course, which is wide-open, flat fields, 20-foot-wide lanes, and race after race.”

Boys Team

The boys team finished last year’s regular season at 5-2 overall (1-1 home, 4-1 away), 3-2 in the CCC Central Region and 2-2 in the CCC Central Blue Division. They placed 7th at the conference meet and 12th at the state meet, advancing just a pair of harriers to represent Southington at the state open.

The program is still devastated from missing out on last year’s state open, but no team is more hurt by the absence than the boys team after just barely missing the race by a team or two. The bad taste in their mouth has since become bitter and is what will be the driving force for the team the whole season.

“They really think that they can be there and be a top team,” said Dachelet. “They realize that every workout and run counts and has a purpose.”

The boys team lost nine runners to graduation after last season. Four of those runners came from their top seven, including their all-conference frontrunner.

Key returners this season include seniors Michael Dorsey, Jeffrey Hannigan, Conner Leone, and Shane Leone; and junior Ryan Slesinski. Dorsey and Shane Leone were named as the team captains.

Conner Leone, Shane Leone, and Slesinski all ran in last year’s conference and state meets. Hannigan ran in the conference meet. Shane Leone is coming into the fall with around 500 miles logged from the summer.

As the only all-conference runner returning this season, Conner Leone finished with the team’s second-best time (17:16) at the state meet and third-best time (18:18) at the conference meet. After finishing 40th at the state meet, he was just one of two runners to represent Southington at the state open.

He will look to fill big shoes this season as the team’s frontrunner and is coming into the fall with right around 400 miles logged from the summer.

“He’s a consistent runner, which means that if he has a bad day, it’s not a really bad day,” the coach said. “It’s just degrees off of a best performance. He’s always pushing the envelope.”

With a smooth pace and flawless maneuverability, he also knows how to manage the biggest races.

“He’s a driven kid who runs from the front,” said Dachelet. “He’s mentally tough, and I think he believes that he should be up there with the top runners in the state. He realizes that this is his year.”

Conner Leone won’t be alone. He’ll have plenty of company behind him as well.

It’s not just seven runners. It’s 10 or 11 runners deep with a 45-second spread, including other returning runners like seniors Anthony Riccio and Sean Young; juniors Benjamin Palladino and Tyler Strong; and sophomore Matthew Penna. All ran in last year’s conference meet.

Girls Team

The girls team finished last year’s regular season at 5-2 overall (2-0 home, 3-2 away) as well with the same regional and divisional records. They placed eighth at the conference meet and 12th at the state meet, falling short of qualifying any runners for the state open.

The girls team got off to a solid start last year, and Dachelet said that he thought their pace was tracking very well. However, the fitness wasn’t where it needed to be, and it showed at the end of the season.

Dachelet is hoping that the mileage the girls put in over the summer won’t let them fall into the same trap at the end of this season.

“Some of the varsity girls have done things this summer that they’ve never done before, in terms of training-wise,” said Dachelet. “Hopefully, that will be the ticket that we need for them to see some serious personal records.”

Unlike the boys team, the dynamic of the girls team is much different. One of the biggest differences is the fact that the girls team is half the size of the boys team in the number of runners they have.

But for what they lack in size, they make up in unity. The team is comprised of a smaller, close-knit group of girls with a core group of varsity runners.

“They absolutely know that they are in the mix,” the coach said. “It’s absolutely necessary for them to succeed.”

Not having those 10 to 11 runners deep like the boys team could play havoc on the girls team if they don’t stay healthy though. One of the major challenges for the girls team over the last couple of years has been managing chronic injuries and the growth issues for some of the more petite runners that are still growing.

Losing just one girl to an injury during the season would not only have a dramatic impact on the squad, but it would also have a detrimental effect on their postseason potential.

“I’m hoping that those girls have gotten the strength and conditioning to help them through those things,” said Dachelet. “Hopefully, we’ll see them being contributors this year.”

The girls team lost six runners to graduation after last season. Two of those runners were team captains and came out of the top five.

Key returners this season include seniors Sarah Minkiewicz (all-conference), Laini Pizzitola, and Isabella Scalise (all-conference); and juniors Natalia Adamczyk (all-conference) and Kate Kemnitz. All ran at the conference and state meets. Pizzitola and Scalise were named as the team captains.

Coming into this season, most varsity girls logged around 300 miles. But Pizzitola was way ahead of the pack, logging well over 500 miles after missing the steeplechase at the end of the spring season. Adamczyk had a strong end of the cross country season last year, running between third and fourth consistently for the girls team.

Scalise has aspirations of being both the frontrunner of the girls team and the conference winner this season. It’s safe to say that she’s certainly earned the rights to the title of frontrunner after leading the girls team all of last year, finishing with Southington’s top marks at the conference (20th, 21:23) and state (35th, 21:04) meets.

Not much has changed since, and Scalise is expected to lead the girls team again this season.

“It’s her senior year, and she wants to run in college,” the coach said. “I know that she’s being looked at by other schools and wants to continue to make this a part of her life for the next four years. This is the last big season to really be able to impress college coaches.”

To comment on this story or to contact sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at bjennings@southingtonobserver.com.

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