By BOB YORK —
Only one team – eventual champion Phillips Exeter Academy – placed as many runners among the top dozen finishers as Deerfield Academy did during this year’s New England Prep School Athletic Conference Boys Division I Cross Country Championships. Both squads rang up three: The Big Red filled the first, seventh and tenth slots that were good for 18 points. The Big Green, meanwhile, laid claim to the fourth, ninth and 12th spots, to give it 25 points during the early juncture of the competition and a leg up on at least finishing second in this annual showdown for a third straight year.
From that point on, however, these two rivals reached a fork in the course. Exeter went north, securing its second straight New England title with 62 points, as its next two runners wound up 16th and 28th. Deerfield, however, saw its medal run erode as it took the southern route, with its final two finishers hitting the line at 74th and 81st. Its final score of 180 saw the Big Green finish ninth out of a field of 14 teams.
On the bright side, Deerfield wound up just three points out of seventh place, as Milton and Brunswick both finished just two points ahead of the Big Green. Northfield Mount Hermon School grabbed a second-place finish on the day with an 82-point effort, while Choate, a team Deerfield had defeated earlier in the season by a narrow 29-30 margin, was the third medal winner, finishing with 134 points.
This fall’s group of Big Green harriers opened the season with hopes and dreams of being among the elite in New England, and a blue-ribbon finish at the prestigious Canterbury Invitational Meet did nothing to dampen those aspirations. Deerfield’s fearsome foursome led the charge with Robert Beit (13), who would earn this year’s Moreau Hunt Trophy as the team’s premier runner, finishing second, Ben Wood (13) and George Reich (13) placing fifth and seventh respectively, and Reed Horton (14) coming in 11th.
The week after that victory lap at Canterbury, however, one of the wheels fell off the Big Green’s train that would hopefully take it to Medalsville. Horton went down for what proved to be the remainder of the season with a stress fracture in his leg.
“Depth is as important to the success of a cross country team as talent is,” said coach Mike Schloat, “and when Reed went down, we lost that bridge you need to connect our top three runners with the rest of the squad.”
Then, about a week later, according to Beit, another wheel fell off, when David Hamilton, Deerfield’s No. 5 runner, was knocked out of commission and was forced to the sidelines for what also proved to be the rest of the season. That gap then became all too evident during the New England meet, as Deerfield’s top three finishers “ran just about the way we had projected they would,” said Schloat, of a fourth-place finish by Beit (15:44), just 20 seconds off the winning time, a ninth-place finish by Wood (16:05) and a 12th spot by Reich (16:09). With Horton and Hamilton on the sidelines and unable to ill that gap, which by now must have resembled the Grand Canyon to the remaining Big Green runners, Deerfield’s next finisher was Gene Thagard (15), who wound up 74th in a time of 17:39, while Teddy Romeyn (13), the recipient of this year’s Peter Brush Award, was 81st in 17:45.
A lot can happen in 90 seconds during a championship cross-country meet, and during the 90 seconds that elapsed between Reich and Thagard finishing the race, 62 opponents – that’s about one runner every 1.5 seconds – crossed the finish line and took Deerfield right out of the medals equation.
“It’s just the nature of the game … it’s the nature of any sport you play … injuries are going to occur and you just have to move on and compensate for them the best you can,” said Schloat. “And that’s exactly what these kids did this year. We may not have finished as strongly as a team as we had hoped, but all the kids produced their best individual times of the season at the New England race and as a coach, that’s all you can ask of your runners. I’m very proud of their efforts.”
“Losing two of your top five runners is frustrating,” admitted Beit, “but it was something we all had to learn to deal with and did our best to overcome it. The tough part was hearing from time to time that they might come back and then, in the end, they were unable to.
“Unfortunately, in the end, however, it proved to be just too big a gap,” added Beit, “and although we had a group of strong runners, our fourth and fifth guys just didn’t have the experience that it takes to make up the difference.”
Deerfield’s top trio of Beit, Reich and Wood appeared to be joined at the hip this season, as their finishes at the New England meet were about the furthest they would stray from each other at the finish line all season long. In addition to a 2-5-7 finish at Canterbury, Beit wound up first at Westminster, while Reich and Wood were third and fifth respectively.
During a sweep of a tri-meet early in the season, nipping Choate, 29-30, and outlasting Loomis, 27-30, these three would exhibit the ultimate show of camaraderie, finishing 1-2-3, in a span of just seven seconds. Even in losses, you couldn’t separate these three amigos. During a 17-44 setback to a power-packed Exeter squad, Beit was fifth in 16:33, just 42 seconds off the pace of Exeter’s Kieran Scannel, who would go on to win individual honors at the New England meet, while Wood was sixth.
Against Andover, which would wind up fourth at the New England meet, Deerfield dropped a close 27-32 decision, as Beit finished second, Reich third and Wood fourth. A first, fourth and fifth combo by this trio saw the effort come up a little short, as NMH, the silver medalist at the New England classic, held on for a 26-33 victory.