Cross country runners get their moment in the sun at FCIAC regional championships

NEW CANAAN – It was a winning day, that Wednesday on Nov. 4, when the FCIAC gave cross country runners and teams the opportunity to run in regional championship races at Waveny Park.

It was a winning day for the six runners who were individual champions, for the six team champions, and for the FCIAC, in general, that the conference and the race organizers followed proper health protocol in implementing safety guidelines to successfully pull it off during this new abnormal which the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought.

The FCIAC teams ran against each other regionally during the regular season of dual meets. There were three separate regional championship meets in which the teams ran against the same teams they competed against during the regular season, but this time they all ran in the same regional race.

So there ended up being six varsity races with no more than 50 runners in each race.

Jay Egan, the New Canaan High School athletic director, has been the race director at the FCIAC Cross Country Championships for the last 25 years – the first 10 years in his role as cross country head coach and the last 15 years in which he has been New Canaan’s AD.

After having the longtime veteran race organizers and the FCIAC pull it off, Egan could not have been more pleased with how things went and could not find any flaw with hindsight.

“We all felt really good to be able to give the cross country athletes a championship experience and, more importantly, to run in Waveny Park and on the championship course,” Egan said. “This way the times could be compared. We had a real fast boys time (from Westhill’s Colin McLaughlin) and a fast girls time from the girl from Greenwich (Mari Noble). The boy from Westhill, there was nobody with him.”

The race organizers adhered to the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference safety guidelines in which there would be no more than 50 runners per race.

There were three regional championship races – the East, Central and West regions – so were three girls individual and three girls team champions, and three boys individual and three boys team champions

Noble of Greenwich was the defending FCIAC girls individual champion and she ran away from the field to win the FCIAC West Region race this year and lead her Cardinals to the team title.

Last year Noble won the conference championship by 29 seconds with a time of 14:05 on the 4-kilometer course (4,000 meters) and this year she won the regional race with a 14:25.1. Mairead Clas of Darien was runner-up to Noble in last year’s FCIAC meet and she placed second in this race with a 15:30.5. Noble’s teammate, Esme Daplyn, was third with a 15:40.2. Greenwich won team title with 29 points and New Canaan was runner-up with 43.

Anna Keeley of Fairfield Ludlowe was an impressive champion as she won the FCIAC East Region race in 14:37.4, which was the second fastest girls time and 50 seconds faster than last year when she placed 15th at the FCIAC Championships.

Kalie Holden (15:00.1) placed second to lead Trumbull to the team championship and Fairfield Warde’s Emilia Kozeracki (15:36.8) was third. Trumbull scored 30 points and Ludlowe was second with 47.

The other female champion was Wilton’s Emily Mrakovcic, who won the Central Region race with a 14:59.5 and improved on the 15:23 she had last year when she made the All-FCIAC First Team by placing 13th in the conference championship meet.

Amanda Graham (15:03.6) of Brien McMahon was the runner-up. Katherine Rector (15:09.6) and Georgia Keller (15:12.7) took the next two spots to lead Ridgefield to the team championship with 28 points, 20 less than runner-up Wilton.

One tough part of not having a traditional conference championship meet was that McLaughlin did not have the opportunity to become Westhill’s second FCIAC champion ever and the school’s first winner in 40 years since the excellent Kevin King defended his title in 1980.

As Egan noted, there was nobody anywhere near McLaughlin as he ran away from the rest of the West Region field and won by 81 seconds with his clocking of 15:36.8. Last year McLaughlin placed seventh at the FCIAC Championships with a 16:09. This year Luca Palamenti (16:58) of New Canaan placed second and Darien’s Lucas Madariaga (17:00.3) and Evan O’Rourke (17:07.6) were third and fourth, respectively, to help the Blue Wave (45) nip New Canaan (46) by one point for the West Region team championship.

Nathan Cramer of Fairfield Ludlowe won the East Region boys race in 16:21.9. Joseph Gregory (16:53.2) placed second and led Trumbull to the team title with 34 points while Joseph Callanan (17:05.4) was third while leading Fairfield Warde to second in team scoring with 46 points.

McLaughlin’s performance was especially impressive in that his 15:36.8 was the fastest boys time of the day by 33 seconds.

Charlie King (16:09.8) and Charles Namiot (16:11.2) had the second and third fastest boys times, respectively, as they swept the top two spots to lead Ridgefield to the Central Region championship with 23 points. Staples was the team runner-up with 46 points. Davis Cote (16:28.3) of Wilton placed third.

The top 15 runners in each of the six varsity races all made their respective FCIAC All-Region teams.

Because the three boys and three girls races took place at the usual site of the conference championship meets, the usual starting line is so wide and spacious that the handful of teams in each race could be far apart enough from each other in their own team boxes when the starter’s pistol was fired.

Teams were limited to eight runners per team, and chip timing was utilized so there were no runners packed in close to one another in finishing chutes which are usually used.

The runners came across the finish line and immediately veered off to their own team area which was located a good distance away from the other teams.

And there were no spectators allowed.

“For a frame of reference, in a normal year we time 950 to 1,000 runners between the varsity, junior varsity and freshman races, and there are hundreds of spectators who are out there,” Egan said. “But there was still a level of excitement that was there. You felt that level of excitement among the kids that this was still a championship race, and the kids really got after it.”

The FCIAC runners were especially fortunate to get to compete in this event because the Eastern Connecticut Conference had scheduled its cross country championships in Waterford on that very same Nov. 4 day, but that meet was canceled because of the steady uptick of COVID-19 cases during the last several weeks.

Another aspect which enabled the FCIAC to successfully conduct the regional races is because of the great coordination from the Town of New Canaan and so many people who have played key roles to organize the conference championship meets for decades.

“The biggest thing about that race is the fact that everybody has a part to do and everybody just does it,” Egan said. “You get guys like Jim Gerweck, Steve Norris and Steve Benko, and Bill Mongovan is always the starter. These people come together and do what they do and have been doing it for 20 to 25 years. It’s like we don’t have to even talk with each other. It’s just a well-oiled machine because of their contributions.

“And the Town of New Canaan is very supportive of hosting that event,” Egan continued. “The Town of New Canaan appreciates what a nice event it is for a lot of kids who work so hard and a lot of time they don’t get the recognition they deserve. I’m happy we were able to do this for the kids this year. We were happy to do it on such a great day at such a great place. Every time I’m out there I’m always amazed at how beautiful the property is.”

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