If last year was putting his standout group of seniors at the front of the lineup and watching them fly, then this year will be an entirely different challenge to Xavier coach Chris Stonier and his group.
With nine of his 12 fastest runners being freshmen or sophomores after early-season trials, Stonier doesn’t just have to plan out the next two months. He’s able to road map a plan for multiple years that will hopefully end in the same place it did in 2017: racing in Nike Cross Nationals, the most prestigious team competition in the country.
“There are so many many parallels between that 2017 team and this group in the making,” Stonier said. “In 2015 when that senior group were sophomores we finished 17th in Class LL, and that was the worst performance in Xavier history. Two years later we made nationals. I see very significant similarities with this group.”
Raw talent is there in spades. Sophomores Eamon Burke and Noah San Vicente — who raced at the State Open last year — moved up the lineup due to graduation and others behind them are also making an impact. Of the about 30 on the roster, half are sophomores. Sam Simko and Brody Santagata are key contributors, too.
A pair of freshman are also looking to make an impact. Matt Whitaker has shined early on, Stonier said, while Nick Cassarino earned in a win in the Falcons’ meet against Branford.
“The seniors last year did a great job teaching these sophomores how things are done,” Stonier said. “I think this sophomore group is wise beyond their years in terms of doing everything that needs to be done to maximize their ability and team performance.”
The ace in the hole remains, though. Robbie Cozean is one of the fastest runners in the country and is coming off a New Balance outdoor national championship in the 5k last June. He’s finalizing his college plans currently and will lead the young group through the ups and downs of the season.
“More than half of our guys ran at least 500 miles over the summer,” Stonier said. “They’re very fit and very dedicated; it’s one of the smaller groups I’ve ever had, but what it lacks in size makes up in work ethic and camaraderie. Those are all good qualities you want in your program.”
It’s scary to imagine how dominant the Falcons will be two seasons from now. Xavier is searching for its third straight State Open title. Competition is beginning to heat up; the Falcons will unleash its top lineup at the Bowdoin Park Classic this Saturday in New York. The Falcons are coming off a dominant performance at the River Valley Invite last weekend. Burke took down the win there.
Greenwich’s Mari Noble started off her junior season in style, capturing a trio of races inside a week to establish herself as a runner to beat in the postseason.
The most impressive win came last weekend at the Wilton Invitational, where she bested a field of 144 runners with a time of 14:46 on the 2.5 mile course.
“I felt pretty good,” said Noble after the race. “I raced two days ago and I tried to take those days off in between pretty easy because I wanted to run a fast time on this course. This is such a great environment; I love this race, there’s a lot of talented runners and it’s a good challenge.”
Due to a congested dual-meet schedule, many of the top runners in the area sat out the race, including defending champion Kate Wiser. But the field was still stacked. Bethel sophomore Ava Graham finished 10 seconds behind Noble while FCIAC rivals Mairead Clas (Darien) and Alessandra Zaffina (Trumbull) finished inside the top five.
Noble earned several quality wins as a sophomore, including capturing the Class LL title in both cross country and the 1,600 outdoors.
Along with teammate Zoe Harris, Noble and Greenwich has a strong 1-2 punch that could lead to the Cardinals to success in October.
“I feel really strong about our group,” Noble said. “We have a lot of talented runners but most of all they like to work hard and have fun. I’d say that’s the most important part of cross country, to work like a team. A lot of people think it’s an individual sport but it’s really a team sport.”
FIRST OF MANY
Manchester sophomore Aidan Puffer is set to have a big 2019, and captured his first big win of what could be several this fall. He won the Manchester (N.H.) Invitational over the weekend with a time of 15:32, close to 20 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher. The race for a state title could be an incredible one between Cozean, Puffer and other talented athletes.