WILTON — In winning the FCIAC, Class LL and State Open titles last year, the Danbury girls cross country team also became the team to beat as 2019 began.
The Hatters were voted No. 1 to start the season to put the proverbial bulls-eye on their backs, but if last year showed what they’re capable of, there’s little doubt they’ll be in the hunt again.
In addition to its talented lineup a year ago, the Hatters displayed grit when it mattered most. They trailed very late in both the FCIAC and Class LL races, and the State Open was won by a single point. Last season’s captains Lauren Moore (Navy) and Cassandra Sturdevant (Sacred Heart) are now at the next level, but left a major impact.
“Lauren and Cassandra changed our program,” said Hatters senior Caroline Williams ahead of the Wilton Invite last weekend. (Coach Marsha) Turek has been a really good coach forever, and Lauren and Cassandra advantage of that, went with it and it created a legacy throughout the team where everybody wanted to be as fast as them and do the effort they were doing. It added a competitive level we’d ever had before. It was really cool to see.”
Recapturing all of this magic is a difficult task — particularly in the FCIAC — but the returning group has the potential to accomplish the same. Most were in the heat of the moment of last year’s triple crown, and it’s a more senior-laden squad this time around with Sarah Johnson, Meilee Kry, Valerie Fox, Williams and Alex Chakar providing the leadership.
Junior Daniella Grullon-Pena is another standout in the program, and could be one of the top runners in the state come October.
“Daniella is super enthusiastic,” Turek said. “She always gives 100 percent and is a team player. And feisty; She’s very fun to have around for sure.”
“She’s so aggressive in her races and I just think that makes her good,” Chakar added. “She’s so competitive and naturally talented, and Turek has coached her to the best of her abilities. I think she’s going to be great this year.”
The Hatters have battled injuries and illnesses to start the season, and have not been able to use its strongest lineup in early-season meets. It’s hard to imagine the FCIAC championships are already less than a month away, but it’s not long until the Hatters will be defending all of their hardware.
“We’ll see,” Turek said. “The league is certainly really strong this year, just like last year. You couldn’t have predicted what happened last year.”
The Danbury boys team is working on filling out its lineup in search for a first FCIAC title since 2015, but at the front the Hatters are led by two of the top returners in the FCIAC in Jack Watson and Jacob Hefele. The squad is also senior-dominated and could use that experience to wrestle the crown away from Staples next month.
“It’s a good group of seniors up front,” said Hatters coach Rob Murray. “We have kids who have been through the program for four years now who have been exposed to big high-level races. I’m confident with where they are physically with their training and experience.”
Both Watson and Hefele finished inside the top 35 at the State Open last year.
“Jack is one of those kids who is competitive with whatever he does,” said Murray. “He’s a kid you need to set the example of how to be a competitive athlete in any sport. That’s what he’s brought to the program, and he really relates to and engages himself with every kid on the team.”
Fellow seniors Dylan Rosemark and Aidan Byrne are key components of the team; Murray added both latter could surprise some next month.
“Aidan really stepped up this year,” Murray said. “He put in a lot of big miles this summer and he looks a lot stronger for the tougher 5K cross country courses.”