MIDDLETOWN >> Longtime Mercy cross country coach John Hastings knew his team had a chance to be very good this fall.
Kaleigh Roberts, an all-state runner who placed second in both the Southern Connecticut Conference and Class L championship meets a year ago, was returning for her senior season, along with Mikayla Mooney and Janine Mouland. MacKenzie Pias, who earned all-state honors last year as a freshman, and Hannah Albert, a junior now, were also back.
Add a pair of talented freshmen in Bridgid Selfors and Melanie Cirillo, and Mercy had a formidable top seven that was ready to compete at a high level and maybe even make some history along the way.
“You watch the Invitationals and the dual meets and you see what happens and you get an idea of who is good,” said Hastings. “It’s not like it just happened. But you’ve got to do it when the day comes and we were able to.”
Eight days after winning their first ever SCC championship, there was a still a buzz surrounding the Tigers this week as they prepared for Saturday’s Class L state championship meet.
“It’s a big deal,” Hastings said of capturing the SCC title. “It’s hard to do. The league is very competitive. We’ve been very close before. I don’t think we’ve ever been favored to win it, let alone win it, so this was the first real chance we’ve had and we did it. It was great.”
Along with Mercy’s historic team title, Roberts accomplished one of her preseason goals by winning the girls individual title. Roberts, whose first place time was 18 minutes and 37 seconds, outdistanced Wilbur Cross sophomore Danae Rivers (18:54).
“It felt good,” said Roberts, who was named the Register’s Athlete of the Week. “I worked a little harder (this year) but I also knew Danae was a good runner so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. It was a really great day and it’s even better when all of your teammates get to celebrate together.”
Roberts is having a season for the ages. She set a number of course records while leading Mercy to an undefeated dual season and a 16th SCC Quinnipiac Division crown.
“I’ve coached a lot of great runners and Roberts is one of them,” Hastings said.
“I started training a lot earlier this year,” said Roberts. “In past years I took off a little more time between the end of outdoor and the beginning of the summer season. As the season has progressed I think I have progressed as well so the times have definitely been getting better.”
“The thing that’s neat about Kaleigh is that she’s improved every year,” Hastings explained. “She has always been very good but she is even better than she was last year and the year before. She has a knack for racing. These are things that I didn’t teach her. I think she knows what to do without me telling her. There are very few kids that are like her in that respect, I mean very few.”
Hastings, now in his 19th year coaching cross country at Mercy, was an assistant coach at his alma mater, Wesleyan, in the mid-1980s.
“When I was at Wesleyan I ran with a couple of guys that were world class and this is the kind of mentality that Roberts has,” said Hastings. “I’m not saying that she’s going to be world class, I’m just saying that she knows how to compete and it’s not an easy thing to know how to do. She gets the most out of herself when it comes to racing.”
Roberts, who has applied for early admission to Quinnipiac University, has also embraced her role as the Tigers captain.
“She’s been wonderful,” Hastings added. “The kids like her. She doesn’t have a swell head or anything like that. She’s down to earth and takes success in stride. She’s a great example for everybody.”
The Tigers followed up a season opening win at the Mercy Invitational with an eye-opening dual meet win against Branford. In late September, Mercy placed sixth out of 23 teams from around New England at the prestigious Ocean State Invitational in Warwick (R.I.).
Roberts placed third (19:01.67) at Ocean State, while Selfors was 13th (20:12.68).
Roberts, Pias and Selfors have been Mercy’s Big Three this season. Pias placed seventh in the SCC championship meet and Selfors finished 12th, while Albert joined the top three on the all-conference team by placing 16th.
“Pias and Selfors are exceptional,” said Hastings. “I’m hoping they will be all-state on Saturday. You can’t predict that but they’ve got a chance. And Albert has been a steady fourth runner for us and has made a big improvement.”
Cirillo, Mooney and Mouland have been battling for the all-important fifth and final scoring spot.
“For us it’s a matter of getting our fifth runner in quicker,” said Hastings. “Without Melanie we’d be in a lot of trouble. Mouland is an amazing runner and another senior who has improved every year and is totally dependable. And Mooney is a second-year runner who is ranked close to those two.”
Mercy will be seeking their first state title since 1993 tomorrow at Manchester’s Wickham Park (2:35 p.m.). The Tigers were Class L runner-ups to Simsbury in 2005. Mercy also captured consecutive Class LL state titles in 1990 and 1991 behind Liz Swift, who won the individual title in 1991.
“We’re one of the top teams again but I think it will be a little harder to win (Class L),” said Hastings. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re trying to get ready. We’re pretty confident we’re going to do as well as we can (on Saturday).”
The Class L race will also feature a rematch of last year’s top two finishers, Fairfield Warde’s Cate Allen and Roberts. Allen edged Roberts by .08 seconds to claim the title.
“Hopefully, I can stay with her and have enough left in me to finish it off,” said Roberts.
Win or lose, it has been a dream season for Mercy and Roberts.
“I think because of Kaleigh’s leadership and some of the other kids it’s just a good group,” said Hastings. “We’ve had fun and that’s the biggest thing. It’s nice to win but when everybody gets along and everybody works hard that’s the cool thing. And they’re having a great time.”