WESTPORT >> Wednesday afternoon inside the Staples Fieldhouse, Erica Hefnawy and Hannah DeBalsi discussed the most recent news in the running world.
Both were admittedly against 17-year-old running phenom Mary Cain’s decision to turn professional.
“I think it’s really great that she can do that, but you’re a high schooler now,” Hefnawy said.
“It just annoys me, she’s broken all these high school records,” DeBalsi chimed in.
The two standout Staples cross country runners love to stalk and obsess over the competition. But slowly but surely they’ve realized this past fall, they are just like the other runners. And that’s help lead to their success.
“They’ve seen their competitors as people they see on the Internet and read all about and think they know more, almost like a pro,” Staples assistant coach Malcolm Watson said. “They are just high school kids. And they realize that. No other girl knows something they don’t. And it’s been fun to see them get.”
On Saturday, Nov. 30 at Van Cortlandt Park (Bronx, N.Y.) the two will compete in the Northeast Regional Foot Locker Cross Country Championships that feature participants from 12 states. Race time is set for noon.
It is the first time in Staples history they’ve had an individual compete in the historic event. The Top 10 runners will advance to the Foot Locker National Championships on Dec. 14 in San Diego, Calif. at Balboa Park.
Both DeBalsi and Hefnawy have been the headline names for the Wreckers girls’ cross country team this fall. They helped lead Staples to a program best eighth place finish at the New England Championships on Nov. 9 in Manchester, N.H.
Now, there attention is focused on extending the season and making the most of the last race or two.
“Personally, I want to get Top 10,” Hefnawy said. “I think it would be great, really it’s my main goal.”
The improvements this season in Hefnawy’s times tell the story of how much she’s progressed. But Watson explained the junior, who up until this season has experienced more success on the track, has taken to the sport and seized the moment.
“She’s almost become single minded,” Watson said. “When I’ve seen her in the past she’s done jumps, sprints and middle distances. And now she’s really embraced being a distance runner and it’s just helped her improve leaps and bounds.”
Hefnawy is coming off an impressive personal record of 18:30.2 at New Englands where she finished 20th.
DeBalsi’s path to Foot Lockers has been anything short of spectacular. She’s undefeated on the season and shattered multiple historic course records along the way. At New Englands her 17:15.8 time was nearly 24 seconds faster than the nearest competitor.
The sophomore said the mindset is to obviously finish Top 10 but she also wants to win.
“She’s excited about the prospect of racing all these other really fast girls that she hasn’t seen,” Malcolm said. “And when she gets to the starting line, there’s going to be no holding her back.”
Added DeBalsi: “I want to win. But the next two races I know I’ll be facing some of the best competition in the country.”
DeBalsi and Hefnawy went and and ran at Van Cortlandt last weekend and know what they’re up against. It’s a slower 5K course and features a two-mile section DeBalsi and Hefnawy described as the “rollercoaster”.
“It just slams you with hills,” Malcolm said.
Knowing how to tackle the course and having a strategy will be imperative.
“Both the girls have really improved in their tactics, and where both of them used to get anxious when they weren’t in the positions they should at the mile,” Watson said. “And it doesn’t matter where you are at the mile; it matters where you are at 5,000. And they’ve embraced that and really let other girls make mistakes.”
The All-State runners both smile at the mention of how much easier this postseason has been having a running partner. A year ago, DeBalsi was the only Staples girl at New Englands. They are hoping they get two more races together this season.
“They both truly love running and that’s just made it so easy,” Watson said. “I’ve made them get through a couple horrible workouts in the wind (on Tuesday) and they just smiled the whole time. In the end, I think it’s really what’s going to take them all the way to Balboa Park.”