BRISTOL - Tamara Stafford-Kirk still remembers what the Greater Bristol Invitational used to look like in the early ’90s.
She ran in the event every season for the Bristol Central girls track team before graduating in 1992. That was back when the invitational involved just a few local schools, such as Wolcott and Terryville, plus the Bristol teams, and it was the only invitational Bristol Central participated in.
“It was a big meet for me, and it was exciting,” said Stafford-Kirk, now the Rams’ boys track and field head coach. “It was a big opportunity. I was a competitive track athlete who only competed in dual meets, and I went there and I’m like, ‘Oh, this is awesome.’ It was just exciting to have a meet to showcase the local track and field talent in the area.”
But the meet underwent a long hiatus, and Stafford-Kirk and Bristol Central teacher Dave Greenleaf batted the idea around of bringing it back, wanting a return of the local showcase. For years they would discuss the idea, but didn’t know if they would be able to handle all of the difficulties that came with hosting and organizing it.
“Finally,” Stafford-Kirk says, “we bit the bullet and said, ‘let’s go for it.’”
Four years ago, the meet made its return, bigger than ever. On Saturday, the fourth annual Greater Bristol Invitational will take place at Bristol Central, the revamped version of the meet being expanded from 15 schools in 2016 to 25 schools this year.
“Our program is pretty well-respected around the state, so people come in and know we’re coaches who care about our programs,” Stafford-Kirk said. “We run a good program. We’re organized, so they wanna come to our meet because it’s been well run.
“I think people have been happy with the meet, and they keep coming back. We were happy to take some more schools this year. It should be pretty exciting.”
Schools such as Glastonbury and Manchester have come in the past few years, and this season the Xavier boys team and its strong distance runners will be coming to town as one of the key additions that will make the invitational even more competitive - though due to still being in the Stafford Springs Invitational, the St. Paul teams will be the only Bristol squads not in attendance.
With about 50 combined teams between boys and girls - including the squads from Plainville, among others from the area - there will be plenty of exhaustion for hosts Stafford-Kirk and Rams girls head coach Kiara Bonilla-Jusino in organizing the meet, which includes timing races, officiating and hauling equipment onto the track.
“It is a huge undertaking. My life is consumed by this, this week,” Stafford-Kirk said. “When just one school comes for a meet, it’s an undertaking. When you have basically 50 teams coming between boys and girls, it’s a huge undertaking. That’s what really held us back, ‘Do we really wanna dive into this?’ Every year around this time I’m going, ‘What did I get myself into?’ And then we run the meet, and it’s been successful. And it’s like, ‘this is why we’re doing it.’ To give our kids the opportunity to have a big meet on their home track and also to bring in teams around us.”
The past three seasons, the meet has been held on a Friday, finishing under the lights. This year, however, the 49th annual Bristol Tramps banquet forced changes to the invitational. With Stafford-Kirk’s former distance runner Jillian Sullivan and the 2010 Rams boys cross country team that Stafford-Kirk coached being honored at the banquet, she decided the meet needed to be pushed to Saturday.
“I think it’ll be nice to do it on a Saturday,” Stafford-Kirk said. “I love the atmosphere of a night meet, but hosting on a Saturday opens it up to more teams. On a Friday we have to limit it, because we have to finish the meet by a certain time. We were more limited on a Friday, and it made it a little nerve racking because it was like, ‘let’s go. Let’s get this done.’”
The Greater Bristol Invitational is one of the biggest meets being run in the state this weekend, on par with the O’Grady Relays hosted by Danbury.
Typically, the meet has been a barometer for the Rams’ boys teams, but this season they have only competed at one invitational thus far (April 6 at Bloomfield) after last weekend’s Hillhouse Invitational was cancelled due to a site-scheduling conflict.
“For us, this is a meet that will certainly gauge where we are, but will also get us rolling for our big meets coming up,” Stafford-Kirk said. “We have our dual with Middletown on Tuesday, which is always our biggest, most competitive dual meet. … This is a time where everything starts moving really fast and we get rolling.”
Some of the athletes to keep an eye on for the Central boys this weekend include Mark Petrosky, Devin Flores and Nate DeAngelo in the 3,200 meters; Jose Ramirez and Austin Freve in the 800; Pacifico Flores and Ben Stafford in the 1,600; David Bowes in the 100, 200 and 400; Galen Hickey in the triple jump, last season’s runner-up in the event at the Class L state meet who is still recovering from a September ACL surgery; and the 4x800 relay team (Petrosky, Flores, Freve, Ramirez).
“Our distance squad has been running really well,” Stafford-Kirk said. “They’ve been running really well, but we haven’t had any big meets to test them. But they’ve looked really great in practice.”
On the girls side, the Rams are also looking to see where they stack up.
“I think this is a good midseason checkpoint for us,” Bonilla-Jusino said. “The beginning of the season can be especially tough because of the weather, so at this point the weather’s nice, the kids are feeling good and we can kind of see who is moving in the right direction before we move to championship season, so it’s really important for them to compete well this Saturday.”
Adalia Malick will be running in her first invitational of the season after placing fourth in the 400 at the Class L state tournament. Kaiya Alexander finished second in the Class L shot put last season, and twins Abigail and Gabriella Calfe will be competing in the long and triple jump. The Rams will cap the night with a strong 4x400 relay team.
“After this, I know a lot of the girls feel really good, and they’re ready to compete at the next level,” Bonilla-Jusino said. “I think competing at home is very, very different than competing on the road. All meets are super important, but you have that pride factor. You wanna protect your home turf.
“Having an invitational at home is really special. The Bristol Central and Bristol Eastern coaches take a lot of pride in this meet. We like to show people what Bristol is all about. I think it’s really, really cool they were able to bring it back, and hopefully we’ll be able to continue this meet for years to come.”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or email@example.com