SOUTHINGTON â€“ To put the success of this yearâ€™s Southington girls cross country team into historical context, consider what head coach Dan Dachelet compared this Blue Knights group to when discussing their season so far.
â€śThis isnâ€™t quite the 1984 Southington boys team,â€ť Dachelet said. â€śBut itâ€™s pretty damn close.â€ť
That 1984 squad, widely regarded as one of the best the Southington program has ever produced, was a Class LL champion, a State Open winner and boasted runners like Southington Hall of Famer Richard Black, who went on to compete Nationally that year and finished in 21st place overall, another staple in a career that is among the best the area has ever seen. Now, in 2020, the girls team appears to be matching the 1984 team stride for stride.
The teamâ€™s next step towards history will continue on Saturday, when the Blue Knights are scheduled to compete in the Nike Cross Country Virtual Championships, which will include the top teams from all across the country, including the top two from each region. Southington finished second in the Nike Virtual Northeast Region event, securing one of the coveted national spots.
Southingtonâ€™s historic success has been a group effort led by its top five runners that have already made their mark on the program as a whole. If you need any tangible evidence of their accomplishments, look no further than the Blue Knightsâ€™ history books.
The top-five times in Southington girls cross country history are owned by all five of the 2020 teamâ€™s top runners, and all five made those marks this season. Senior Grace Michaud has the top time in team history after winning the CCCâ€™s Region B championship race earlier this month with a time of 18:35. Jacqueline Izzo, Frenchie Riccio, Jessica Lombardo and Diane Pillsbury round out that top five, all of which set their own historic marks in a meet against Plainville earlier this season. Izzo, a junior, finished second at the Region B championship behind Michaud, while Lombardo and Riccio came in fourth and fifth, respectively, giving the Blue Knights four of the top five finishers in the region. In fact, Bristol Centralâ€™s Natalia Popielarz, who finished third in the event, became the only runner not in a Southington uniform to crack the top five in a meet against the Blue Knights all year. Each other meet had all five Southington runners atop the leaderboard.
The overwhelming success of this group leaves Dachelet wondering just how dominant this team could have been in a normal season with all in-person meets and a typical state championship construction.
â€śI donâ€™t know if weâ€™ll ever really know,â€ť Dachelet said. â€śTheyâ€™re by far the fastest team in school, history, but until you put them against other teams, weâ€™ll never really know. If you look at what other teams have done around the state, I think weâ€™d stack up as one of the top three schools in the state, just going off of times, but courses are different.â€ť
With many races being virtual this year to prevent crowding and minimize the risk of a potential covid-19 spread, the Blue Knights have leaned on each other for motivation when on the course. For a senior runner like Pillsbury, the arrival of a pair of dynamic freshmen like Riccio and Lombardo gave Pillsbury an extra push in the form of friendly competition. The result? Pillsbury shaved nearly a full minute off of her final mark at the state championship meet last year, and helped her earn All-State honors in 2020, just as the other four Southington runners did. Competing against teammates who are also among the best in Connecticut helps bring an added intensity to virtual events, though Dachelet wonders if his runnersâ€™ numbers would be even more impressive if opponents were present to give the Blue Knights even more of a push.
â€śNobody has pushed these girls but themselves,â€ť Dachelet said. â€śThey ran fast, but who knows how fast they would have run if more was on the line.â€ť
That absence of opposing runners make Southingtonâ€™s accomplishments all the more impressive. These five All-state winners this year already eclipses the teamâ€™s all-time mark of two All-State runners. Sure, this yearâ€™s placements may have turned out different if it was against normal statewide competition instead of a more regionalized field, but the times still speak for themselves, and the Blue Knights will look to improve upon their already historic times on Saturday while going up against the best in the nation.
Nike sent each team a â€ścourse in a boxâ€ť package loaded with gear and accessories to give the virtual meet as much of an in-person feel as possible. Fortunately for Southingtonâ€™s top five, they have plenty of experience pushing themselves despite the missing pieces to a normal race, and Saturdayâ€™s race will be one more milestone for a year that has already been filled with them.
The groupâ€™s season will continue even further after Saturdayâ€™s race, though not under official Southington representation. The runners have been invited to compete in the Northeast Club Championships in New York, which invites top runners from New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. That race is scheduled for next Saturday.
On Dec. 5, Southingtonâ€™s runners will compete in another unattached event, the East Coach Championships in Holmdel, New Jersey. The event invites the best runners from anywhere east of the Mississippi, including Saratoga Springs, New York, home of one of the top cross country programs in the nation.
The Blue Knights will have their chance to run against the best in the country after being virtually tested against many of those same top runners. It will be a fitting ending to a season already loaded with history.
â€śItâ€™s definitely a talented bunch,â€ť Dachelet said.