Hannah DeBalsi closed her eyes trying to contain her jubilance. She couldn’t.
Cate Allen grinned. Danae Rivers laughed.
It was a rare Tuesday afternoon in March when three of Connecticut’s most talented female high school distance runners were together, but not on a track.
Instead, they sat in a photo studio getting their portraits taken.
Away from the normal competitive environment, they talked school, life, and of course, running. It was a light and relaxed atmosphere. It could be because, well, they weren’t racing today.
“They say runners are different. They really are,” Hamden boys’ head coach Bryce Lindamood said. “They are competitive but they are your friends; competitors during the race but friends before and after the race. Very few sports do you see this.”
This is a snapshot of what Connecticut high school track and field is experiencing now.
“I think everyone is seeing resurgence in track and field in America,” Lindamood said.
And the small state of Connecticut, tucked away in the northeast corner of the country, is more than benefiting from the revival; especially in the distance department.
The latest crop of male and female runners are some of the best the state has seen in quite some time.
“We all make each other better runners,” said DeBalsi, a sophomore at Staples.
This past indoor season the state boys’ 2 mile and 3,200 records were broken. The girls’ 1,600, 2 mile and 3,200 records were shattered.
Last spring, the boys’ 1 mile and girls’ 2 mile, 3,200 and 5,000 were rewritten.
The 2013 outdoor season ended with six runners from the state ranked in the Top 10 nationally in the middle to long-distance events, ranging from 800 to 5,000 meters, according to Internet running site Milesplit.
As outdoor track and field meets begin on April 9, the talent will be on full display.
“From my point of view…this unfolding and merging of great talents is something I personally will not forget,” Fairfield Warde head girls’ track coach Shawn Sorbello said. “And this will hopefully spawn the future scene in Connecticut.”
A Special Era
“When I first started out, I knew I had a lot of potential, but I never imagined I would be where I am today,” Fairfield Prep senior Christian Alvarado said.
“I didn’t think I would be a nationally-ranked runner, partially because I probably had no idea there was such a thing as nationally-ranked runners in high school,” DeBalsi said.
It’s been a steady and upward climb for the two individuals to have their names known around the country.
Alvarado and DeBalsi spent part of this past indoor season ranked as the No. 1 3,200 and 2 milers in the country.
But they haven’t been alone on the national stage.
Claire Howlett, a senior at Westhill who is committed to Stanford, finished the indoor season ranked fourth nationally in the 5,000. She holds the state girls’ 5,000 outdoor record at 16:45.56.
Rivers, a sophomore at Wilbur Cross, ran a 4:48.59 mile at the indoor nationals in March. She finished with the seventh-best mile time in the nation.
DeBalsi broke the sophomore national 2 mile indoor record at the New England Championships in a time of 10:12.95 in February.
Last spring she captured the freshman 2 mile outdoor national record.
Darien’s Alex Ostberg, a junior, was right behind Alvarado in the 3,200 and ranked as the No. 2 runner in the country for a while. The pair finished with the fourth and fifth best 2 mile indoor times.
Allen, who is committed to Wake Forest, owns eight indoor and four outdoor track and field school records.
“I truly believe that track and field in Connecticut is special,” Glastonbury girls’ head coach Brian Collins said.
The incredible results have been in part to more kids with athletic backgrounds focusing in on running, and getting quite good at it.
Allen is a former soccer player. Alvarado played basketball. DeBalsi took part in taekwondo until the fall of her freshman year. She holds a second-degree black belt.
Last spring, Allen, Howlett, DeBalsi and Rivers all ran under five minutes at the State Open in the 1,600.
At the 2013 outdoor state meet in California, a state with a larger field of athletes, 10 girls ran less than a five minute 1,600.
On Feb. 7, the four girls were ranked in the Top 15 indoor in the 1,600.
“Watching Cate, Hannah, Claire and Danae go at it in numerous times this past season was unbelievable,” Collins said. “These girls are some of the best in the country. Many times cross country and track doesn’t get the recognition that the bigger sports get. Then you hear about the Connecticut All-Americans in cross country and track and that tends to change the perspective a bit.”
Amity boys’ head coach Thom Jacobs remembers back in 1996 when an athlete from Amity won the Indoor State Open 3,200 in 9:58.
“(Now) 9:58 is quite likely going to be seeded in the slow heat of the Class LL meet these days. That’s how big a change we have seen,” Jacobs said.
Fast forward to 2014 and it’s a culture full of distance runners that have been challenged by their predecessors and peers to be better and push the limits.
“I would say the excellence has raised the expectations,” Lindamood said.
Alvarado grew up following in the footsteps of Prep greats Patrick Corona and Connor Rog. In the next town over was Staples’ Henry Wynne, who was the 2013 indoor and outdoor national champion in the mile.
“Connor (Rog) and Henry (Wynne) were big influences on me,” said Alvarado, who will attend Georgetown this fall. “Connor especially because he was on my team and the relationship we had. It was almost like he was feeding off my determination and I was feeding off of his already established speed.”
Alvarado broke the state 2 mile indoor record at the New England Championships in February. His time (9:00.29) destroyed the record of 9:08.7 by Pete Fitzsimmons of E.O. Smith set in 1975.
DeBalsi had a similar situation as she was a freshman when Wynne was a senior.
“Henry made it normal for a Staples athlete to win the national championship,” Staples assistant coach Malcolm Watson said. “So she (DeBalsi) doesn’t see herself as anything different.”
Times have been driven to be the best almost every instance an individual steps on a track. And the definition of great has come to take on a completely different meaning. Allen, Howlett and DeBalsi, who all hail from the FCIAC, race against at least three times any given season.
“I definitely had some races this indoor season that I was not happy with my times and weren’t near the times I was striving to be hitting,” Allen said. “Connecticut has developed a lot the past couple years in distance running and it is taking faster times to win each race.”
As times have continued to improve, it’s proven to be an influence on teammates and other schools. Ridgefield, Danbury, Xavier, Amity and Mercy are just a handful of programs that have individuals challenging the crop of elite runners now.
“The greater the number of fast runners there are, the more fast runners will emerge,” Jacobs said. “Good competition breeds more of the same. I believe that it’s an exponential phenomenon.”
A distance history
Longtime Greenwich cross country and track coach Bill Mongovan used the word cycle to describe the state’s track history.
At Greenwich since 1965, Mongovan’s seen his fair share of runners, more so than most.
He vividly remembers the 1970s, when Jan Merrill of Waterford (now Merrill-Morin) ran. He called that one the beginning cycles of great track runners in the state.
“They were highly-motivated, just like the runners you see today,” Mongovan said.
Merrill-Morin, who had a competitive background in swimming and field hockey, was a trailblazer for the sport.
She ran track for Waterford, graduating in 74. She won gold in the 1,500 at the 75 and 79 Pan Am Games. She competed in the 76 Olympics, held numerous world and U.S. distance records, among a myriad of other accomplishments.
Merrill-Morin went on to coach at Waterford (1988-2006) and was an assistant for the Coast Guard women’s track and field and cross country program (1992-2006).
She coached one of the state’s best female runners at Waterford, Liz Muller, who won the Foot Locker Cross Country Nationals in 1991 as a junior and still holds the state 800 outdoor record (2:07.19).
“From my viewpoint in the state of Connecticut in cross country no one was near her (Muller),” said Merrill-Morin, who works at Rutgers as an assistant coach for the women’s track and field program. “During outdoors she was challenged as we put her in some of the lower distances.”
Mongovan coached Ceci Hopp, now St. Geme, who ran at Greenwich where she set the state indoor mile, 3,000 and outdoor 1,500, 1,600 and 3,000 records that still stand today. She also won the Kinney National Cross Country Championships in 1980.
She went on to run at Stanford where she was highly successful.
She currently coaches track and cross country at Corona del Mar High in Newport Beach, Calif.
But what’s unique and quite remarkably special is what was accomplished in the limited access and availability for the runners. There was no Internet. For competition, you had to travel if you wanted to race an elite group. And the opportunity was limited.
They ran because they had a passion for the sport.
“When I would go to national championships my coach gave me a piece of paper with the list of entries in my race, that was it,” Merrill-Morin said. “And you know what? That’s all I needed. I knew what my job was.”
Added St. Geme: “It is very different now….I caught the first wave of female runners benefitting from Title IX and did not grow up thinking I could get an athletic scholarship.”
These are some of the athletes that paved the way for what the state is seeing now.
Kevin King of Westhill (1980) and Roy Masco of Staples (1983) still hold state records.
More recently names like Meghan Owen of Killingly, Gavin Coombs of Griswold, Glastonbury’s Donn Cabral, Chris Bendtsen of Wolcott, Willie Ahearn of Danbury, Chris FitzSimons of Hamden, Glastonbury’s Lindsay Crevoiserat and Sarah Gillespie of Northwest Catholic have all graduated and left their mark.
“Having Donn and Lindsay on the team opened eyes to many in the state about how good Connecticut can be,” Collins said. “I can’t tell you how many people came to meets to watch Lindsay and they didn’t even know her. Hearing how she was setting state records and smiling during her races inspired many athletes.”
Crevosierat is now running for the University of Oregon, while Cabral went on to compete at Princeton and ran in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2012 Olympics.
There are no secrets in running.
“With the Internet the way it is now, any day, any drill, any workout, you can find the highest level person and you can try and emulate that,” Lindamood said.
Internet sites like Milesplit, Dyestat and others have given athletes the opportunity to see how competitors thousands of miles away are performing.
“I check Milesplit, Flotrack and all those websites on a regular basis because I enjoy seeing what’s going on around the sport in high school, college and professionally,” DeBalsi said. “Seeing what other runners do hasn’t really changed our training program, but it’s interesting to see what everyone else does.”
It’s also been a benefit to coaches in the sense the information on workouts and knowledge that they can soak up in the distance department has increased.
“Distance running has taken off in Connecticut because we have dedicated and hard -working coaches who care about their athletes,” Rivers said.
A model training plan
At Glastonbury, Collins goes by the philosophy that less is more. The program is built on low mileage.
“We don’t run hard workout days back to back at all,” Collins said. “The philosophy is that these athletes are young and still growing and developing.”
Allen is a similar situation at Warde.
“My workouts have changed in the sense that I run faster times for each repetition and am able to do more reps than I was freshman year,” she said. “My coach also changes up our workouts so I don’t normally have the same three workouts every week. My mileage has not increased drastically; I am doing more now than the prior years, but my training is based more on lower to middle mileage so that I am not worn out or reached a peak before college.”
For DeBalsi she explained the philosophy behind each workout and the amount of workouts she does hasn’t changed that much.
“During indoor we were focusing more on longevity and building a good base, so most of my workouts were aerobic and not too speedy,” she said. “My mileage has gradually increased since freshman year because my goals have changed and because I can handle more mileage now.”
Merrill-Morin explained there are a lot of things going on now to enhance a talented athlete to become a good track athlete.
Alvarado said he fell in love with compression socks during his sophomore year.
“Compression socks are most commonly used to recover from hard workouts and races as quickly as possible,” Alvarado said. “The compression is meant to increase circulation and reduce lactic acid build-up.”
DeBalsi, along with a lot of the athletes said they’ve incorporated weight lifting into training. But she said it goes back to the fundamentals in a sense for everything to fall into place for a runner.
“Having a healthy diet and doing the proper stretching are definitely extremely important to being a competitive distance runner,” DeBalsi said. “If you don’t have enough fuel to run every day, you’re ruining your own training, and not eating enough usually results in an injury. If you don’t stretch properly, you’re probably going to get injured as well.”
A pure love for the sport
The State Open set for June 9 at Middletown will be the mecca of high school track and field in Connecticut.
With the competition at an all-time high, it’s easy for athletes to focus on the finish line and winning.
But for this collective group that hasn’t been an issue. And quite frankly, it’s what makes them even greater.
“I try to always remember to enjoy what I’m doing and not get too caught up in just trying to win,” DeBalsi said. “If I always enjoy running, I’ll be motivated to stay mentally and physically sharp.”
Added Rivers: “The competition allows me to have fun.”