GACC Previews: Tales of 3 (special) teams ... in the New Balance ROCs

by Steve Underwood


Photos (all from 2013 GACC): Above (left to right), Blacksburg girls and La Salle boys. Below (top to bottom), Saratoga girls, Bonnie Angermeier of Blacksburg, DJ Principle of La Salle.

KEY LINKS: Meet home page | Entries and Seeds2013 Results | Meet Info

There are three (at least) teams competing Saturday in the New Balance Race of Champions events at the Great American CC Festival which will command attention far beyond Cary, N.C.

Fans nation-wide will be looking to see how the strongly favored La Salle, RI boys and the girls’ “co-favorite” Blacksburg, VA and Saratoga Springs, NY teams fare on the unique layout at WakeMed Soccer Park. 

La Salle, which was 12th here last year, began to really hit the national radar five weeks later when they won the New England Championships with a top-7 that had no seniors – they were led by soph Jack Salisbury and frosh DJ Principe in 7th and 9th.  The wave of success for the school’s distance runners continued through indoor and outdoor track, with three hitting 9:15 or better for 3,200m and others hitting strong state-to-national-class marks from 800 to 3k.  The buzz grew to the point that they were ranked as high as #1 in the nation, pre-season, by

La Salle got its first major test at the Bowdoin Classic in New York last weekend, racing without one of its top standouts in Salisbury and still finishing within 13 points of US#1 (, Christian Brothers Academy.  Coming into this Saturday, they are now ranked US#2 by Milesplit and #3 by DyeStat.

Meanwhile, the Saratoga Springs girls know what life’s like at or very close to the top … and the Blacksburg girls are also quickly ascending the elevator among nationally ranked powers.  In fact, you could say that Blacksburg used its runner-up finish here a year ago as a springboard to quite a year of success.  They went on to another state title (6 in 9 years at that point) and made it to nationals for the 2nd time in program history, taking 21st.  With just one key senior themselves, Blacksburg’s distance crew continued to mature indoors and outdoors, claiming a dramatic New Balance Nationals Indoor 4x1 mile as perhaps the biggest highlight. 

Bonnie Angermeier and Jennifer Fleming were each sub-10:40 3,200 and sub-5:00 1,600 performers – generally the leaders – and several others were not far off.  In fact another returnee, Emily Beatty, was 3rd behind Angermeier in the 3A state meet last fall.  So far this fall, there have been dominating victories at the Knights Crossing and Adidas Challenge (at WakeMed two weeks ago) and current national rankings of #6 (DyeStat) and #7 (Milesplit).

Meanwhile, there’s the great Saratoga Springs program, ranked #2 in the nation by Milesplit.  They’ve won nine titles at Great American (2000-05 and 2009-11), then were 2nd and 4th the past two years.  They have a history at nationals only second to 8-time champ Fayetteville-Manlius.  Last year they brought one of their youngest and most inexperienced teams ever to Cary (after graduating some strong seniors) and finished 4th … but like the La Salle boys and Blacksburg girls, almost everyone is back. 

Spencer Hayes and Estela Smith are the senior leaders (Smith leading the 2nd team in this meet), while an impressive group of youngsters includes freshmen Peyton Engborg, Caroline Starace and twins Carly and Samantha Vetter, soph Amelia Mahoney and 8th-grader Paris Fenhoff.  Big early wins at the Queensbury and Shaker Invites have set them up for this trip.

So we talked with coaches Ken Skelly of La Salle and James DeMarco of Blacksburg to get a sense of where they’ve been, what they hope to do here, and where they’re going.  Check out their replies below! (Saratoga Springs’ Linda Kranick was also contacted, but we didn’t get a reply yet).

La Salle, RI boys – Coach Ken Skelly

On Jack Salisbury’s status:  Jack is progressing with his injury very well, but we want to make sure he is ready to go when it is time for championship season, so he will not be making the trip to North Carolina.  We look at Jack's injury as an opportunity to try out a couple of the younger guys in varsity races.  We can't replace Jack, but we are finding out more about other runners that are waiting to have a chance.  This will make us stronger when he returns and our depth will hopefully be even better.

On dealing with the success since late last fall and the expectations coming into XC 2014:  The team understands that past success is only a building block and they must capitalize on everything from the big race down to the easy run, and even down to the mundane drills and stretching every day.  Expectations and rankings are fun. but nothing fills the running soul more than running itself.  They are very determined and are willing to accept any challenge and they have not lost focus since the start of the season. 
The success they have thus far this fall with impressive runs at the RI Injury Fund and the Bowdoin Invitational was great … but their focus is still about being in the here and now, and not looking too far ahead.  Having one of the top runners out could have sidelined the team's morale, but it has had an opposite effect.  There has been some perks along the way from rankings, but the team has not lost their mental edge about what they want to do.

On the leadership and dynamics with the older and younger runners:  The team has been very easy to work with and we have great seniors.  The captains – Jake Grundy, Chris Notarianni and Dan Paiva – and also Jamie Placco, Connor Hennessey and Justin Gugliemetti, have all provided excellent leadership.  We also have very mature underclassmen in DJ Principe, Matt Bouthillette, and Jack Salisbury.  They are all talented athletes, but their focus and character has kept their heads from getting too far in the clouds.  If you ask them what their focus is, they will say Great American.  But come Sunday, their attention will go to state rival Bishop Hendricken.  The captains, Coach Mercurio and Coach Myers are always talking to the top 7, the next 7, and the freshmen about how important it is to have a pack mentality.  Cross country is about the time spread and they understand how important the #4-7 runners are on the team.  The time gap from 1-3 and 4-5 is getting better and so has the squad as a whole.

On how their training has developed now that they have an older team:  Every year, I tweak the training plan for the team and listen to Coach Mercurio and Coach Myers.  We take things out and replace with updated and researched methods of training.  We have our staple workouts that can give us a comparison and tweak the training in-season.  What makes training so much better is that there is such depth of talent that the top runner does not always have to shoulder the workload; it's a shared effort.

On the takeaways they had from the runner-up finish at Bowdoin:  Bowdoin was a good day for us; not great, but good.  Our boys showed that they are up for the challenge and willing to run with any team.  Not having Jack was tough for us to bring the score down, but don't tell the boys that.  They feel that they are up for the challenge.
A team like CBA is fun to compete against, with Blaise Ferro and a supporting cast that makes them #1 in the country for a reason.  Coach Heath does a great job with those boys in Lincroft and it is fun to mix it up with them as we did at Bowdoin.  Like I said before, having Jack out we were able to find out about other runners from the JV squad. The attitude on the team is relaxed and success, or short of it, will still make it hard to distract them from their focus and goals.

Blacksburg, VA girls – Coach James DeMarco

On what the team vibe has been like this summer and early fall, bringing back all but one top runner into fall 2014:  We lost one of our top runners to graduation – and a good leader, too – in Claire Ewing-Nelson (she is off to Yale).  But in the months since, the girls have trained consistently and are much better than this time last year.  Our goal last season was to win the state title and qualify for Nike Cross Nationals, so it was a very successful season.  This year we will have six girls that have competed at NXN and we never had that before.  We have huge goals, which include winning our 7th state title in ten years (the other three years we runner-up) and the big goal to finish on the podium at nationals.  They are very motivated.

On how the first few big meets have met up with expectations:  Our races so far have been okay.  I have been very happy with our depth, but our top three can be a much faster.  At Adidas, we had a bad case of food poisoning that affected three of our girls (Bonnie being one of them).  So we will be avoiding this popular restaurant when we come back.

On the leadership development for a team bringing back so many top runnners:  The team is doing very well.  We have great leadership spread throughout the team, from our JV to our varsity roster.  Our younger girls have been absolutely terrific at learning from the veterans and doing the little things that turn out great results down the road.

On the motivation to win at Great American after such a close runner-up finish last year:  We lost by one point to a terrific Assumption team but it is not a big drive for the team.  They are more motivated about doing better than when we were here two weeks ago and hoping the results will be enough to win.  Great American always a terrific meet, and very competitive, and it will be a great progress report for us.  We would definitely like to win the meet, but the end of the season is our goal and we can't rest too much for this weekend.

On end-of-season goals:  We have had great success at nationals, with the girls getting 6th in 2009 and the boys placing 10th in 2012.  But last year, we were not a great nationals team.  Our ability was of a team that had a chance to make nationals, but not be a top ten team at nationals.  At best, we could have placed 17th or so.  We were off by about 15 seconds a runner, which is a lot, but for that group of girls it was a very long season and their batteries were low.  Another year older, another year stronger, we will be very tough come early December.

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