The cross country postseason seems to have brought out the best in Berkshire County runners.
Six county teams, all in Division II, qualified for Saturday's MIAA state meet at Gardner Municipal Golf Course. Two of them, Mount Greylock's boys and girls teams, enter the meet as Western Massachusetts champions. So do Lenox's Tucker McNinch and Greylock's Emily Kaegi.
"Everyone is running at a higher level during the postseason, including myself," Greylock's Carter Stripp said. "The pressure and desire to do well brings out the best in everyone. I'd say I'm at my best."
The state's toughest test begins at 11 a.m. Saturday, with the Division II boys race. The D-I boys race at 11:40; the D-II girls at 12:20; and the D-I girls at 1 p.m.
The meet is nothing new for many of the Berkshires' best runners; even a young Lenox girls team has state experience, having qualified for last year's meet as Western Mass. champs. The Millionaire girls and boys both finished second in this year's Western Mass. meet at Northfield.
"They're very happy about it, that we get another chance to go to states," Lenox coach Jeanne Teasdale said of the girls after the Western Mass. race. "Obviously, when you get to states, you've got the cream of the crop. I think ... working hard and staying mentally focused for another week is really important for us."
Monument Mountain also won't be new to states, having qualified last year. Both the boys and girls enter as third-place finishers in Western Mass.
"I think, overall, we've been in a lot of big races, whether it was Western Mass. or the Brown Invitational," Spartans girls coach Chris Unsworth said last Saturday. "They've been in races with a lot of talented runners, and it's helped them. It's challenged them. I don't think they're going to be in awe of anything."
Many of the runners are at their best at the perfect time. Lenox's McNinch led a Berkshire County sweep of the top four spots in the Western Mass. D-II boys race. Pittsfield's Lauren Farry had one of her best runs of the season in the D-I race, and feels she's heading into Saturday's race both rested and in top shape.
"I've been happy with my pace so far but I'm hoping I can improve it even further at states," Farry said. "I expect to see a lot of fast times and a very fast start. I feel that I have improved my kick a little and my downhill running, as well as my running strategies."
Farry is one of three county runners in the D-I meet, and the only girl. Lee's Hayley Bowers qualified individually for the D-II meet, in the Wildcat cross country program's first year of existence. She's joined in the field by Hoosac Valley's Sydnee Gallup.
Taconic's Matt Rabasco and Wahconah's Marcus Duncan are D-I state qualifiers on the boys side. In the D-II boys race, Hoosac's Travis and Trevor Ciempa and Jared Haley qualified as individuals. Travis Ciempa was third in the Western Mass. boys race.
The runners won't get much of a chance to see the Gardner course before Saturday's race; the MIAA website notes that the only walk-through available will be after 1 p.m. today, as there is reportedly snow on the course.
That doesn't seem like a big deal for Stripp. After all, Gardner isn't as notorious for its hills, as Northfield Recreation Center is. And running in Berkshire County teaches you a thing or two about hills, too.
"We get the advantage of seeing these shorter hills and know that they compare nothing to the ones back home. It's a mental advantage," Stripp said. "We've seen much worse; why can't we deal with the ones here?"
To reach Matthew Sprague:
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