For Staples head boys’ cross country coach Laddie Lawrence, not a lot has changed over the years.
You can still count on an almost exact practice time after school, some spoken words of wisdom from Lawrence is almost a given, and a competitive Wreckers crew year in and year out is expected.
The formula to maintaining a high-level of consistency for Staples? Exactly that, consistency.
“My system is still basically today what it was 30 years ago,” Lawrence said. “But it keeps getting tweaked. We’ve done more mileage than the past…have not done as much hill training.”
Staples, ranked No. 2 in the latest state coaches poll, and coming off an FCIAC runner-up finish, have been a constant top 10 name in the Class LL state meet.
“I think that the hardest part of maintaining a high level of consistency in cross country is due to the great competition,” Glastonbury head girls’ cross country coach Brian Collins said. “Each year it seems that the kids are getting faster and faster.”
This Saturday’s state championships at Wickham Park in Manchester, will feature one of the more talented and competitive fields in recent history.
At last week’s league championships, four of the team titles were decided by 10 points or less, and seven by 11 points or less.
For teams and individuals chasing hardware, they know how difficult the challenge is.
“I think every great team creates a ripple effect within their conference and consequently in the state,” Branford head coach Kevin Connell said. “We have learned from each other and the end result is what you have now, a very competitive landscape in Connecticut.”
It was the fall of 1999 and Killingly’s Meghan Owen (now Owen Kerwin) was in her freshman cross country season competing against senior Jessica Schenk of Fitch at the State Open.
Schenk would go on to win the Open and finish her high school career winning three straight class and open titles.
Owen Kerwin finished in third.
“I remember finishing the season knowing that was one of my goals, to win the MM and Open three times,” Owen Kerwin said.
She completed that task, winning the Class MM and Open titles (2000-02) three straight seasons.
“Crossing the finish line in the state MM and Open for the first time was such an incredible feeling of accomplishment and surprise,” she said. “After winning these races for the first time there was more pressure to preform and win races and you become other runner’s motivation to beat.”
No female runner has accomplished the three-peat since Owen Kerwin. Staples senior Hannah DeBalsi has the rare chance to add her name to the list.
DeBalsi, who recently committed to Stanford University, heads into the state championships with two class and Open titles on her resume as well as the fastest time on the 5,000-meter Wickham course (17:41) since it was altered in 2008.
“It was work to maintain consistency and mentally not let the pressure get the best of you,” Owen Kerwin said.
If DeBalsi wins her third straight title on Saturday, she will be the first female runner in Connecticut history to win three LL crowns.
“I think as a coach what’s been most impressive is how level-headed she is about it,” Staples girls head coach Amanda Morgan said. “It’s not just Hannah is physically very fit and running really fast, she’s just on top of her mental game, especially as she’s gotten older, she doesn’t get psyched out about what other people are doing. This year she’s been able to enjoy running in the moment a little more.”
The Glastonbury girls, ranked No. 1 in the state, have a chance to win its ninth Class LL title since 2004.
Collins, like a lot of coaches throughout the state, list tradition as an underlying source for success.
“I’ve been very fortunate to get girls each year who want to be part of a winning tradition,” he said. “They push each other to the next level to get better individually and to get the team better.”
One team standing in the way of Glastonbury is FCIAC champion Ridgefield. The Tigers have most recently won state titles in 2011 and ’12. While it’s been a challenge to try and sustain success, Ridgefield head girls coach John Goetz said it’s one that is exciting and fun.
“If a coach can transfer the love of the sport to his or her athletes, then the older athletes are able to transfer it to the younger ones, and a self-sustaining cycle develops,” he said. “I have found that the love of the sport develops best when the athletes have realistic training plans established to their individual abilities and they understand the purpose behind each workout.”
In Class M, the Tolland girls will be vying for its fifth straight Class M crown. If the Eagles win, they will be the most recent team in state history in Class M to accomplish the task.
Montville won Class M from 1978-1983 (six times), which is the only other one to do it five or more in M.
“We run because we love it,” Tolland’s Katherine DeLoreto said earlier this season. “We are so grateful we get the chance to race like this.”
An exciting time in the sport
Lawrence was recently asked what the difference was between his squad, Amity and Danbury.
“I said, a good day; whoever has a good day is going to win,” he said with a laugh. “I think we’re all very close.”
The margin for error, especially in the Class LL boys race, is razor thin. Danbury, Staples, Amity and Fairfield Prep are the top four teams in the state and will get the chance to race against one another, all four together, for the first time all season.
Amity, the reigning state champ, is coming off a second straight SCC crown, but has never won back-to-back LL titles.
“I think that just speaks to the balance of the state,” Lawrence said.
No matter the outcomes, Saturday is sure to be an exciting day.
“It’s a great sport to be apart of and watching it grow and continue to get better and better is awesome,” Collins said. “Watching how everyone at the meets are really getting into the sport and really appreciating all of the performances is great. They’re not just cheering on their runners but the race as a whole.”
Video filmed and put together by Staples’ Cooper Boardman. See more videos here