By BOB YORK —
Cross-country coaches were born to beat the clock. There’s not a second that goes by that they wouldn’t like to just reach out … grab one … and crunch it. In fact, just the mere thought of trimming even a tenth of a tick off one itsy-bitsy second will find them urging their stopwatches to “make my day!”
Dennis Cullinane is no different. The Deerfield Academy girls cross country coach packs a stopwatch, too, and when it comes to getting his charges to cram more distance into less time, he’s become one of the best in the business in the New England prep school ranks. As for making predictions on his clockwork, well, that’s another story. For that, Cullinane relies on a different timepiece – a calendar.
“I’ve been coaching here for six years now,” said Cullinane, “and after my first year,” a year in which the Big Green finished ninth at the New England Championships, “I felt it would take us five years to make it to the top.”
Well, bingo! It’s been five years since his self-imposed countdown to the top began and there’s Deerfield, right where Cullinane said it would be: No. 1.
To his credit, it would appear as though the Deerfield mentor was able to get each and every one of his runners to buy into his quest to be best during that five-year span, as Cullinane’s clans never encountered a single speed bump as they churned their way toward the top rung. Following that ninth-place finish in 2007, his girls placed eighth the next year. In 2009, they finished sixth. From there, it’s been a steady trip to the medals podium. In 2010, Deerfield placed third, last year, it was second, and now, it’s No. 1.
“I’m not a bit surprised that we won the title,” said Cullinane of the school’s first blue ribbon ever garnered from the New England Prep School Athletic Conference Division I Girls Cross Country Championships, “but I am surprised by the magnitude of the win.”
What Cullinane meant by the magnitude of the win was the margin of victory. The Big Green literally ran away with this crowning achievement and never looked back. Like golf, low score wins here, too. So when Deerfield pulled in with 39 points, Choate was left to fight off the rest of the field by finishing a distant second, 69 points behind at 108. Phillips Exeter wound up third with 132 points.
“I was situated about 500 meters into the (5 kilometer) race course taking pictures,” explained Cullinane, and what he saw coming at him that day will remain with him – pictures or no pictures – for quite some time. “I remember watching a wall of green and white uniforms leading the pack … it was an awesome sight,” added the proud mentor, “and I knew if our kids could maintain their positions, this race would be over early.”
Well, they did, and it was. The Big Green, which played bridesmaid in this event last year, finishing second to Nobles, was this year’s bride. Deerfield proved to be a runaway bride as well, as it placed four runners in the top 10 and six in the top 15 during the title trek, which was hosted by Loomis-Chaffee School. Deerfield’s dominance at the front end of the race allowed it to put this showcase on ice before 20 of a field of 98 runners had made it to the finish line.
“I was expecting our kids to put on a real solid effort and, barring something totally unexpected, like an injury, I was very confident of a victory, but I must say I wasn’t expecting the dominance we showed,” said Cullinane. “That’s simply because each and every one of these girls dug down and came up with their best effort of the season. And as a cross country coach, that’s exactly the way you want it … saving the best for last.”
With the sound of the starter’s pistol, Cullinane’s duties as coach could now be refocused on becoming the team’s primary cheerleader and some of his sis … boom … bahs had to be directed toward another Cullinane, his niece, Devinne Cullinane (14). No nepotism here, however. This Cullinane could run for Joe Shmoe and still be the leader of the pack, as witnessed by what she’s done at Deerfield the past two years.
The latest feat by this two-time winner of the Moreau Hunt Trophy, which is annually presented to the team’s most valuable runner, was a third-place finish in this fall’s New England classic in a time of 18:22, just 1:05 off the gold-medal pace. That’s up five slots from her eighth-place finish last year. In fact, the New England race marked the first time this fall Cullinane was positioned to watch someone’s backside cross the finish line in front of her. That’s because she was undefeated entering this showdown, having won both the Canterbury and Westminster Invitational meets as well as a clean sweep through her dual meets.
Lilah Lutes (14) was right on Cullinane’s heels, finishing fourth in 18:26, while Phoebe Morss (15) was eighth at 18:44 and Emma Decamp (13) was 10th in 18:47. Tatum McInerney (13) and Molly Hunt (14), meanwhile, were 14th and 15th with respective times of 19:14 and 19:19.
“Running for my uncle really isn’t any different than running for my father,” admitted the younger Cullinane, who is just one in a long line of family members who runs. “They both have a knack of bringing out the best in you.
“My dad, who spent a lot of time coaching me during my younger years, and my mom, both ran in college. My dad ran cross country, while my mom was a marathoner and has run the Boston Marathon a number of times,” added the younger Cullinane, who broke into the sport when she was 5, which is about 11 years ago, now.
Being the youngest of six siblings, “I had five older brothers,” explained Cullinane, who owes much of her early running experience to the weekend fun runs that were held around her Hampton, N.H., hometown. “But always finishing last to your five older brothers took the fun part out of it,” quipped Cullinane.
Fortunately for uncle Dennis, who is a former state high school cross country champion and Boston Globe All-Scholastic Team member who later ran for the University of Maryland, Devinne has progressed from worst in her house to one of the best in New England.
“I’m extremely proud of her,” said the elder Cullinane, “but then again, I’m proud of all the girls … cross country is a team sport.”
Cullinane, who went into this fall’s showdown having stated that “this is the best cross country team Deerfield has ever had,” was so confident in his team’s talent and depth, he listed three possible scenarios this New England showcase could take – and had Deerfield prevailing in all three.
“The best-case scenario was that we won by scoring in the 40s,” explained Cullinane. “The middle-case scenario was we finished in the 60-point range and the worst-case scenario was that we finished in the 80s. But even then, I still felt we had the talent and the depth to prevail. To win with 39 points and to win by 69 points, though … I was shocked by those numbers.”
He shouldn’t have been. He welcomed back all but one of his primary runners from last year’s silver-medal club. In addition, heading into this fall’s title trek, Deerfield had enjoyed its second consecutive undefeated regular season. Plus, it had defeated all comers in the prestigious Canterbury Invitational Meet for the third straight year and captured the Westminster Invitational as well.
As for future prognostications, this Big Green mentor may want to quit while he’s ahead. But one thing’s for sure: after finishing ninth, eighth, sixth, third, second and first in his quest to be best, “We’ve finally run out of wiggle room,” quipped Cullinane.