It’s a little past 3 p.m. on a hot Tuesday afternoon in late August. But members of the Branford cross country team don’t seem to mind the heat.
There’s a lot of enthusiastic chatter among the crowd as they wait for coach Kevin Connell. They seem anxious to get their feet and bodies moving.
A few minutes go by and the group suddenly takes off on a jog. They’re not waiting for Connell.
About two minutes into the warmup Connell makes his way from the school parking lot toward a grassy area near the tennis courts in an almost hidden, tucked-away corner, perfect for the cross country runners to stake their claim.
“These kids, they know what they’re doing,” Connell said reassuringly.
Connell has been coaching the sport for more than 20 years, so he’s got a pretty good idea of what it takes to make a successful program.
The concept of the sport seems so simple, right? Just go out and run. But there’s a lot more detail, planning and fine-tuning involved.
“Our training is always evolving and changing,” Darien boys coach Tyson Kazcmarek said. “We always look to improve what we do by tweaking things here and there. We adapt the training to the individuals and team we have each season.”
Guilford’s Jon Faitsch stands near the bottom of a grassy hill at Baldwin Middle School. That’s the best vantage point to see his runners.
“That’s not easy,” Faitsch said of structuring a cross country practice. “I mean the kids seem to find their own level; they kind of fall in line with the program I’ve run for years and years.”
Guilford finished fourth at the Southern Connecticut Conference championships and placed second at the Class MM state meet last fall. Since 2004, the Indians have won four state trophies and one Open title.
“This is a workout we do a lot at the beginning of the season, a longer interval,” Faitsch said eyeing the hill. “(They) run about 700 meters as a recovery, and then a 100-meter sprint up the hill. We do this once a week. So usually we’ll try and do a hill workout once a week, tempo or threshold workout, and then at least two days of a long run and then mix easy days in between.”
Back in Branford, Connell said throughout the years the workouts have changed. The Hornets used to have a track-oriented emphasis; now they hardly ever go on the track.
“Over the years we injected more tempo speed workouts in, rather than really hard stuff,” Connell said. “We try and find grassy areas to really try and make it applicable to the course like Windham or where we’ll be running so they get used to it.”
Like at Guilford, they mix up the workouts.
“We do get in a difficult run, like a physically demanding run. We call it Initiation Hill. It’s like a wall almost,” Connell said. “It’s hard to run to the top of it, but we try and put in a few of those physical challenges and some kids love it. They really do.”
Faitsch said the workouts may vary, but there is nothing that is going to set one program apart from another.
“There’s no magic workout. There’s nothing to make you into this phenomenal runner,” Faitsch said. “Really it’s about consistency and training; there’s really no shortcuts in this sport.”
Different, But Similar
The Ridgefield boys won their first State Open title last fall. Coach Bryan Kovalsky said the team doesn’t know much about maintaining success.
“It’s something that we are learning to do,” he said.
Coaches are first to admit success has a lot to do with gathering information and seeing if it works and fits into the program.
“Yeah, I’ll talk to Thom Jacobs (Amity) or Rob Murray (Danbury) about what we’re doing,” Faitsch said. “They’ll say, ‘You’re nuts,’ or ‘Yeah, we do that.’”
The mileage teams run also varies. Tolland girls coach Judi Lafontaine said her top runners hit about 40 miles a week this summer.
“As I gain more experience with what works, I do change things and also try to tailor workouts to fit the needs of the current group,” Lafontaine said. “I do watch what other teams are doing around the state and country.”
Tolland has won the Class M state title each of the past three seasons and claimed the State Open title last fall. The Eagles are the preseason favorite to repeat.
Over at Ridgefield, the Tigers are considered one of the more high-mileage programs in the state.
“We try to get our top runners up over 80 miles per week, but it varies for each runner,” Kovalsky said.
At Darien, where the boys have won the Class L title four of the last five years, the level varies based on ability. Runners cover anywhere from 10 to 50 miles per week.
Branford senior captain Luke Arsenault, who is seasoned in the program, said the years of experience have been a benefit to knowing what his body can handle.
“At this point I feel like I have a big base. My muscles have developed and they’re used to wear and tear,” Luke said. “It’s really being in tune with your body.”
Connell says at the beginning of the season he’ll ride his bike along with the runners so he can tell if an individual is struggling and their mileage needs to be scaled back.
“There are kids that are just beginning with the sport, so you don’t want them to get hurt or get discouraged,” Connell said.
Junior Cyrene Nicholas said one of her favorite things about the sport is the collaborative effort.
“Everyone is supportive and they try and help you and basically pull you along.”
The Branford girls don’t have to go far to get a healthy dose of competition. In the SCC’s Oronoque Division, the Hornets face Wilbur Cross and standout junior Danae Rivers a handful of times each season.
“Having Danae in our division raises the bar,” Connell said. “The kids sort of rise to that occasion.”
It’s not just the SCC though. The competition in the state has seemingly gotten stronger each year. In Fairfield County, Darien’s Alex Ostberg and Staples’ Hannah DeBalsi are ranked as top 5 runners in the nation. DeBalsi is the No. 1 runner in the country, according to multiple Internet running sites.
“The competition in Connecticut has been fantastic,” Kazcmarek said. “Everyone seems to keep one-upping each other. It’s been fun to see how fast the state is becoming. It definitely makes the athletes want to go harder.”
The faster times have served as a good example for many teams to keep training and striving to improve.
“I don’t know that I have ever really pushed our top runners to train for beating certain competition, but (they have) definitely inspired us,” Kovalsky said. “There was a certain point where we knew that (former Staples runner) Henry Wynne was good, but then we came to realize he was the best in the country. These amazing athletes have shown us that anything is possible.”
A Successful Program
Nicholas’ face lights up with the mere mention of Oct. 26. It was last fall when Branford won its first Class MM state title.
“It was amazing. Everyone freaked out, started screaming,” Nicholas said with a giant grin. “I think the success of last year is pushing myself and the team to get there again.”
The success of the girls’ program has been a strong motivator for the boys’ program at Branford, as they have goals of a state title this season as well.
Faitsch said training and success boil down to how badly the individual wants it. At Tolland, Lafontaine said the summer used to be a time to play. Now the kids start training and preparing early.
“If a coach can get a teenager to buy into the idea of putting running high on their priority list, then they will have a successful athlete no matter what their times are,” Kovalsky said.
“You have to have a lot of patience to be a cross country runner and see your improvements,” Nicholas said. It’s a really slow process, but I know if I put in the hard work I will see the results.”