DERBY >> The girls’ cross country team at Derby is not allowed to talk about the championship season yet.
“If they say anything about states, they are in trouble,” Derby head coach Nick DiLuggo said with a smile. “You can test them if you want.”
The girls on the team are mum on the subject matter, too.
A year removed from finishing as the Class S runner-up, the focus for the Red Raiders is on the present, and enjoying and celebrating being a team.
Established as a program in 1988, Derby has never won a state girls cross country championship, let alone a league title. And after a four-year absence from 2009-12, the Red Raiders are only in their third full year fielding a team.
DiLuggo said they didn’t have enough interest in previous years to field a full team. But with a strong push from the middle school running club, interest from track and field athletes, and senior captain Gabriella Prizio serving as a driving force, Derby girls’ cross country is back on the rise.
“I think it was just people seeing how successful everyone was getting and how much fun it was,” said Prizio about getting people interested in the sport.
In her freshman season, Prizio was part of a three-person squad. DiLuggo served as the advising coach, but the team aspect was missing. Prizio said when she’d go to meets, she’d travel with other teams.
A year later, enough individuals signed up and Derby was able to participate as a full squad, with DiLuggo taking over coaching duties for both the girls and boys.
In 2013, the Red Raiders finished in fifth place at the Naugatuck Valley League Championships. Prizio won the individual title and freshman Kiley Rodriguez earned All-NVL honors.
“Sophomore year was a big difference,” Prizio said. “We actually had a team and it was an actual sport.”
Last fall even more success took shape, despite an injury-ridden season. The Red Raiders’ No. 5 runner suffered a concussion at Windham in early September, and Prizio and Rodriguez were plagued with injuries that kept them from running a full season.
“Last year was really rough,” DiLuggo said.
The state championship in October was the first meet Derby ran as a full team. The result was a second-place finish.
“That was totally unexpected,” Rodriguez said. “It was probably one of the greatest experiences.”
Now with a team of nine, the Derby girls are in the midst of a successful and healthy season. The Red Raiders, who won the regular season NVL Copper Division title and are currently 10-0, will compete at the Wickham Park Invitational in Manchester on Saturday.
“We have to go out and handle our business, and we’re focusing on staying healthy,” DiLuggo said.
DiLuggo said the girls are motivated to do even better this fall. He’s still getting his top five to run together in a pack, but the competitive desire and training mentality to push one another has had a rippling affect.
“When they train together, they see the benefit,” DiLuggo said. “Our top three runners work so hard, I don’t want to say it’s an obsession, but it’s pretty close.”
And now, with almost a double-digit roster, Derby is finally able to feel like a team.
“They are so eclectic, they are fun and really determined and actually really proud,” DiLuggo said. “These kids make me laugh so much, but we know when to flip the switch, which is great.”