Mark Goodwin began his storied coaching career in 1973 — the last six years of which have come at Pomperaug — and has overseen the career of thousands of runners.
When asked if he had ever coached a female runner as talented as Kate Wiser in all those decades, only one name — former Bethel and Penn State standout Erin St. John — was even on that level.
Just one. That’s it.
He truly has a once-in-a-generation talent on his hands.
“We are very fortunate to have her here at Pomperaug,” said Goodwin. “I knew she was a great runner at middle school and right from the get-go she was out of here. Whoosh, gone. I don’t know how good she’ll be; every race is a surprise to me.”
Wiser burst onto the scene in 2017 by posting a number of outstanding performances, and is now in the spotlight in her sophomore year as the postseason begins. The Class meets begin on Saturday and will start a sequence of several weeks of highly competitive races.
“I’m really excited,” Wiser said. “Cross country is my favorite season and meets like this with competition are a lot of fun. To win the State Open would be a great accomplishment. And I’m excited for the team; we want to win Class MM.”
She’ll enter the month with a world of confidence based on recent results. She lowered her course record by close to a minute in winning the SWC championship. Prior to that, a win in the stacked field at the Manchester Invitational in New Hampshire reaffirmed her status as a regional contender.
Even if the Manchester race officials weren’t sure who was taking the course by storm in a trio of comedic anecdotes.
“They didn’t know who she was,” Goodwin said. “They didn’t announce her name until the end of the race. They said she was from Rhode Island and they mispronounced Pomperaug. It was a great race to watch; she just went out there and (executed her game plan).”
It all began as a sixth-grader — and No. 7 runner — at Rochambeau Middle School in Southbury, a town with a strong youth running presence behind the Nutmeg Striders club program. Wiser helped the school win state championships in both sixth and seventh grade along with several current Panthers teammates.
“I used to play basketball and soccer,” Wiser said. “I just decided to try out because our middle school team was so strong, and I just made the team as the No. 7 runner.”
A YEAR TO REMEMBER
All that separated Wiser from a spot at the Foot Locker National Championships last December was 6.9 seconds. An 11th-place finish in the Northeast Regional meant she was one spot away from advancing. Wiser was in the top 10 late in the race before being passed on the final straightaway.
“I was hoping (to qualify) but I knew it would be really tough,” Wiser said. “I was upset at first, but looking back on it 11th as a freshman is pretty good. I was motivated after that.”
She hopes to return on Thanksgiving weekend, and perhaps finish one spot ahead of a year ago.
“That’s been one of my goals since I got 11th,” Wiser said. “It’s on my mind.”
That race came after she finished fifth at the New England championships and second at both the Class L and State Open. She set a course record — the course named after her coach — in winning the SWC title, a feat she repeated in 2018.
“It’s got to be New Englands,” said Wiser of her favorite race from freshman year. “The competition was crazy; I thought I had a pretty good performance in that.”
Though she prefers cross country to track — “running around in circles isn’t fun,” she joked — Wiser signed off on an outstanding freshman year by breaking the Class L record in the 3,200 outdoors, winning in 10:44.40. She lowered that time by close to eight seconds in winning the State Open and taking fifth again at New Englands.
DRIVE TO THRIVE
So what makes the sophomore a rare talent? A focused commitment to the sport would be a good place to start, Goodwin said.
“Her work ethic is very good,” Goodwin said. “If we give her things to do in terms of core work, she will do every last crunch and pushup. All the aspects of the sport itself, whether it’s nutrition, rest or paying attention to what we’re doing.”
Wiser made her biggest drop in time from eighth to ninth grade, not coincidently coinciding with an intense commitment to the sport. Each second gained served as motivation to keep pushing forward.
“I feel like anyone if they work hard can become a good runner,” Wiser said. “I just enjoy the sport a lot; I enjoy working hard because I can see the improvements. I feel like if you put the work in it will show.”
Carefully managing his superstar’s regimen is one of Goodwin’s top priorities — and responsibilities. The big picture — Wiser will be a coveted recruit at the next level — is something the veteran coach always has an eye for.
“It’s a balancing act,” Goodwin said. “I don’t want to give them way too much workload because if she runs in college she’s got another four years of college. I’m not going to give her 60 or 70 miles a week; I’m sure there’s people out there that would do that. She has enough skills. Look what she’s running on the amount we’re giving her and that’s modest compared to some schools, and she’s not hurt. That’s the key.”