If life truly is a marathon, then Haddam-Killingworth senior Matthew Jennings arrives next fall at a major checkpoint in his personal journey.
An indoor/outdoor state champion middle-distance runner and two-time Shoreline Conference cross country champ, Jennings has the opportunity to meld academics, running and community service as a member of Yale’s Class of 2025.
Jennings stands out, all right, achievement and otherwise. He is 6 feet, 5 inches. “I’m 6-3 and Matt towers over me,” H-K cross country/track coach Matt Diglio says. Can you imagine what members of the H-K basketball team must think every time they pass Jennings in the hallway?
And yet Jennings’ long-term goal has been to run at the college level, although Yale was not a serious option early in the search process.
“Yale wasn’t really in the cards for me until later in my recruitment period. Growing up, I idolized Yale,” he said. “In the recruiting process, Columbia was the front-runner at the end, as well as Northeastern.”
But Jennings hit it off with Paul Harkins, who coaches middle distance and distance runners at Yale and is also the head men’s cross country coach, as well as other Yale recruits and members of the program during a Zoom meeting.
“I got along with him super well, I talked to a few of the guys on the team by phone, and I fell in love with the program,” Jennings said. “Coach Harkins is continuing to build a strong middle-distance program and that (discipline) is what I want to pursue. Everything lined up and I got through the process pretty quickly.”
The financials turned out right — the Ivy League does not offer athletic or academic scholarships — and here we are. His path could have turned out differently had Jennings heeded his mother’s wishes that he play basketball as a secondary sport at H-K.
“I’ve been running for as long as I can remember,” he said. “My mom is a big runner and triathlete. She has been my coach too. She wanted me to pursue basketball in high school, but with my high school coach and friends, I decided I wanted to run for all three seasons. Once I made the decision, my mom was really supportive of it.”
Diglio could not be happier for Jennings and how it all turned out. The Cougars — boys and girls — have had sustained success under Diglio over the last decade in cross country and in indoor and outdoor track. For future classes of athletes, the 20-year coach will point to Jennings as “what can be accomplished when you work hard and do all things the right way.”
“Matt is an extremely well-rounded young man — academics, athletics, his community involvement and with all the clubs he belongs to,” Diglio said. “When he came into the program he was a very talented runner and made an immediate impact as a freshman. He worked extremely hard and got better and stronger through the years and he stayed healthy and put in the training.
“It was interesting to be a part of the recruiting process with him. Yale checked all of the boxes for him. Selfishly for me, I’m glad he’ll be close by so I can see him run and compete. This was his choice, his decision. He’s worked extremely hard all four years for this.”
Jennings became a championship-level runner as a sophomore, winning three Shoreline championships (1,000, 1,600, 3,200) and his first state title (Class M) in the outdoor 1,600. He finished fifth in the State Open, qualifying for the New England championships.
The results set him up for a big junior season. He won his first Shoreline cross country title, which underscored H-K’s team title. Last winter, Jennings won the Class S indoor championship in the 1,000 and ran the anchor leg on the Cougars’ winning sprint medley relay. He was poised for a special spring in the 1,600 and 3,200, but the season was canceled because of the pandemic.
He repeated as Shoreline cross country champion this fall in a time of 16:17 over 5K, 25 seconds better than runner-up Alexandre’ McMillian of East Hampton, but both the State Open and New England races fell off the schedule because of COVID-19.
What an indoor season will look like in January remains to be seen. The first day of practice is Jan. 19, but that date was established months ago, long before the resurgence in positive coronavirus cases. The Connecticut Department of Public Health is expected to set final guidelines in the coming weeks for CIAC review.
“I just want to have an opportunity to run. I’m training by myself right now, but once we get a little bit further into the new year, I’d like to think there will be opportunities where I can compete indoors and outdoors,” Jennings said.
At Yale, he anticipates running cross country at some point, but he wants to establish himself in the 1,000 meters right away.
“To be completely honest, cross country in college is a big jump from high school,” he said. “I’m looking forward to cross country once I get a year of training under my legs. But indoor and outdoor, something that pulled me into the Ivy League is indoor track has the 1,000 meters. I’ve focused a lot on the 1,000 indoors and it’s not run much anymore, but they do run it a lot in Ivy League meets.”
It’s apparent that his and the Yale program’s interests are aligned.
“At 6-foot-5 Matt has the perfect runner’s body,” Diglio said. “He’s one of those rare runners with speed and strength, and I think he can be successful from the 400 up to the 5,000 meters. I think his future coach at Yale (Harkins) sees him anywhere from a 1,000 to 1,600 runner, and I think Matt was happy to hear his coach say that’s where he sees him fitting in.”
Jennings, who will study ethics, politics and economics as one major at Yale, is invested in issues that overlap with sports and society and is involved with two groups that are of great importance to him. One is the CIAC-sponsored Student Equity Advisory Board. The board pairs student reps from around the state with educators to identify inequity in schools and athletics. They share ideas about ways to create more equitable experiences for student-athletes.
Another is his position as the senior student representative with the Regional School District 17 Board of Education. Among other things, Jennings, a second-year rep, provides feedback to the board on current issues at H-K and answers any questions about student life they might have.
In 2020, mental health has been a front-and-center point of discussion .
“Our administration has done a good job taking a deeper look into students’ mental health,” Jennings said, “and how to provide a support system for those who are struggling. Student reps are trained in ‘Question, Persuade and Refer’ — suicide awareness-type training. This is not new, but it has expanded to the student body, just being able to identify the times when someone might need help. I’m excited for the steps we’re taking.”
For his involvement with the RSD 17 Board of Ed and the student equity board, Jennings appreciates the experiences of meeting with adults “who are willing and ready to listen to students’ perspectives.
“It’s an opportunity that I wouldn’t trade for anything,” he said. “This can help me to grow to be better equipped to make a difference in my community.
“I’m not quite sure what I want to do with my life, but I certainly want to make the opportunities I have had more accessible to people who might not have the same privileges, to students who are in underserved schools or underfunded school districts. I’m willing to do the work and have conversations.”