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Stanford-bound Howlett leaving strong running legacy at Westhill

Bob Greeney

When Claire Howlett joined the Westhill High School girls’ cross country team three years ago as a freshman, she was hardly a phenom.

There was no early indicator to foreshadow the accomplishments and excellence to come her way as a distance runner for Westhill.

The Claire Howlett success story is one in which motivation and determination drove her toward becoming the best female distance runner in school history and certainly among the best high school runners ever in the state of Connecticut.

The accomplishments, including many school and state records, are plentiful.

It was the combination of her excellence in running and as a student that earned Howlett a scholarship as a student-athlete at Stanford University in California, which has a tradition of strength in women’s distance running.

“I’m very excited about Stanford,” Howlett said. “At first I was very hesitant about the distance from home. I never imagined I’d be going to college that far away. But when I went on my recruiting visit I fell in love with the school. The team is so incredible. There’s a ton of talent there. There will be a lot of great training partners, many girls better than me, and a great coaching staff.

“That was one of the big draws for me. I’d rather go to a school where I have to work to keep up, rather than go to one where I’d be one of the top runners at the beginning. I’d much rather start at the bottom and work hard to improve and get better.”

Hardly anyone, not Howlett or her coach, Eddie Lane, saw any of this coming after Howlett’s modest but solid beginning to her running career.

“When I first saw her I called her the prancer because she ran with those high knees, kind of like those Spanish horses,” Lane said with a quick laugh. “The first ones who pointed (her potential) out to me were (New Canaan coach) Art Brown and (Westhill volunteer assistant coach) John Ogden. They were telling me, ‘This girl is going to be great.’ I said to them, ‘You guys are nuts.’ This girl was running 11:45 for the 2-mile as a freshman. All of the sudden, as a sophomore, she started running 11:15.

“That caught my eye,” Lane continued. “Then I thought: These guys might be right. After her stride smoothed out and her knees were not so high she started running faster and faster and faster. And her determination is so strong. I just tell her what to do and she just does it.”

Howlett’s career got rolling innocently enough when she placed in 57th at the 2010 FCIAC Girls Cross Country Championships with a time of 17 minutes, 29 seconds that placed her fifth among freshmen.

A few months later she placed 21st in the 1,000 at the conference’s indoor championships. The motivation and drive began to kick in, as did some steady improvement, and in May of 2011 she was 12th in the 1,600 (5:38.32) at the FCIAC Outdoor Championships

Howlett made huge strides in improvement during a pivotal juncture when her freshman outdoor track season and the ensuing summer of mileage training transitioned into her sophomore cross country season.

“I think I was someone who needed a bit more time than most to get miles under my belt,” Howlett said. “It was a whole year of training and gradually building up. During that summer I did work hard, but nothing crazy. I just developed more slowly than most. It just took me a while to get used to race strategy, doing heavy mileage and getting used to it. Actually I did nothing different. I just followed my coach’s plan.”

Howlett got her successful sophomore year rolling in earnest when she placed fifth at the 2011 FCIAC Cross Country Championships with a time of 15:10 on the 4,000-meter course. That was a huge drop of two minutes and 19 seconds in time, and 52 spots in place position from the previous year.

She was actually the second Viking runner as junior teammate Nicole Ambrosecchio (15:00) was the race’s runner-up. Ambrosecchio and Howlett led Westhill to fourth place.

The development continued and the passion for running increased during her sophomore year that Howlett concluded by placing eighth in the 3,200 (11:10.72) in State Open outdoor championship meet.

“As a freshman I was just kind of doing it,” Howlett said. “As a sophomore I really felt committed to running. By the end of the year I felt this is something I really want to put an effort into. My real breakthrough was my junior year. I came back for my junior year and had some real strong races. That’s when the transition happened to where this is something I like to do and something I want to do in college. I didn’t think I was going to run in college until midway through my junior year.”

One key aspect of Howlett’s success that can never be underestimated has been the presence of Hannah DeBalsi, the superb sophomore runner at Staples High.

DeBalsi has similar excellent accomplishments. Having each other to push and pull each other in so many races has led to them both breaking so many school, FCIAC and state records.

A microcosm of this excellent and respectful rivalry occurred during a stretch of three championship meets within 15 days at the end of last spring’s outdoor season.

DeBalsi swept the 1,600 and 3,200 while Howlett was runner-up at the FCIAC Championships on May 21, 2013. Nine days later at the state Class LL championship meet DeBalsi and Howlett both broke the old meet record while placing first and second, respectively, in the 1,600. Later in that same meet Howlett won the 3,200 and DeBalsi was runner-up.

Howlett’s peaking continued as she mesmerized longtime track coaches and fans with her performance while sweeping the 1,600 and 3,200 at the State Open on June 4 while DeBalsi was just behind her in both races. Howlett won the 1,600 in 4:53.97, just .58 of a second ahead of DeBalsi. Howlett won the 3,200 with a 10:20.03 and DeBalsi had a 10:21.86 as they both shattered the meet record of 10:35.02 that Glastonbury’s Lindsay Crevoiserat set the previous year.

“I certainly can’t speak for Hannah, but I know would definitely not be where I am today if it wasn’t for her,” Howlett said. “In my junior year we were racing each other over and over, especially in track, when I ran my greatest times because she was always pushing me.

“If I had to run alone I would never run (personal records). When I ran 10:20 she was there pushing me. She is an amazing, gifted runner who does not need anyone to push her. In the New Englands (this past indoor season) she went out and ran 10:10 with nobody pushing her. I don’t know how much I helped her but she certainly helped me.”

Howlett concluded her fantastic junior year with yet another school record when she placed fifth in the 5,000-meter run with a 16:45:56 at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals.

That achievement along with getting those three victories and a runner-up finish in four state championship meet races paved the way toward Howlett being named the Gatorade Connecticut Athlete of the Year for girls’ outdoor track and field.

Excellence and additional achievements continued for Howlett and DeBalsi during the past cross country and indoor track seasons. DeBalsi and Howlett went 1-2, respectively, in the FCIAC, state Class LL and State Open cross country championship meets.

More recently during the indoor season Howlett was the winner and DeBalsi the runner-up in 1,600, and then DeBalsi won the 3,200 and Howlett was second at the state Class LL championship meet. A week later Howlett had a personal-best 4:53.07 while placing third and the runner-up DeBalsi had a 4:52.57 as they both broke the meet record in the greatest State Open 1,600 ever.

Howlett concluded her indoor campaign this past winter by placing third in the 5,000 (16:58.35) at the New Balance Indoor Nationals.

As coincidence has it, Westhill can make the claim of having two of the best male and female high school distance runners ever from Connecticut.

Kevin King still has the state 1,600 record of 4:07.26 that he set in 1981 prior to his outstanding career at Georgetown University, where he won the 3,000-meter run and set a school record at the NCAA indoor championships in 1985.

As for who was the state’s best female high school distance runner ever? That would most likely be Greenwich’s Ceci Hopp, who still owns the state’s mile record of 4:42.6 that she set in 1981.

And, coincidentally enough, Hopp had a great career for a Stanford University program that was a female distance running national power in the 1980s.

“I emailed her a little bit when I was going to be out there,” Howlett said of Ceci Hopp St. Geme. “(Veteran Greenwich coach) Bill Mongovan put me in touch with her. She was just so nice. She’s an amazing runner and she’s a great inspiration.”

Stanford placed 13th this past November at the NCAA Cross Country Championships and two years ago Stanford placed third for its highest finish since it won its fifth NCAA title in 2007.

The fact that Stanford is also a great academic institution made it especially attractive to Howlett.

Howlett is a member of the National Honor Society, she has an unweighted GPA of 4.0 and her weighted GPA is 4.85 while taking mostly AP and honors classes. This past March she received the prestigious National Merit Scholar award.

Suffice it to say, Stanford University will be getting a total package of excellence in Claire Howlett.

Westhill star runner Claire Howlett will be taking her talents westward to Stanford in the fall. (Dave Stewart/Hersam Acorn Newspapers Photo)

Westhill star runner Claire Howlett will be taking her talents westward to Stanford in the fall. (Dave Stewart/Hersam Acorn Newspapers Photo)

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