Girls Cross Country

By Bob York –Given the drama … the suspense … the intrigue … plus three hours to let it all fester, and you have a New England Prep School Athletic Council Cross Country Championship awards ceremony that mirrored a dinner mystery theater. The difference: those in attendance wanted to know who won it, not who done it.

“Our race began at 1:30 pm and we were done by 2,” recalled Deerfield Academy girls cross country coach Dennis Cullinane, whose sport has him normally calculating time in seconds, rather than hours, “ but it wasn’t until around 5 or 5:30 that our race results were finally announced.” And while Cullinane and his Ponytail Express waited and wondered, the boys varsity race was started and completed, as well as the boys and girls JV races.

Although the wait must have seemed endless, Cullinane defended NEPSAC’s move by saying, “they just wanted to make sure they got things right.

“A couple of years ago,” said the Big Green mentor, “there was a problem with the scoring … something, as I remember, went wrong with the computer that was keeping track of the results. Well, they posted the results immediately after the various races and then they presented the trophies after all the individual races were complete. The next day, however, they discovered the error and had to email one of the schools to return its trophy. I know they didn’t want that to happen again, so they took their time this year, they chose not to post the results immediately and made sure everything was correct before announcing them.”

The wait, especially that last hour or so, became rather surreal, as 13 girls cross country coaches and their 90 runners turned into detectives and began searching for clues that might divulge who the winners were.

“I remember all the coaches began looking at each other to see if any of us were smiling,” recalled Cullinane, “and I know a lot of them were looking at me to see if I was smiling because we were the pre-race favorites. But I really had no idea at that point who had won … but I wish I had. I felt Andover had had a great race and might have beaten us out. If I had known there was going to be a delay in posting the race results, I would have had someone at the finish line to write down how the runners finished and in that way we would have known much sooner.

“Then,” added Cullinane, “it seemed as though everyone began keeping an eye on the St. Paul’s coach. St. Paul’s was the host team, so watching the St. Paul’s coach seemed to make a lot of sense. If anyone knew what was going on, it would have to be her …but she wasn’t smiling either.”

Finally, though, after everyone had finished … after all 351 runners in the four races had been counted, the announcements were made. Even that aspect of the ceremonies was crammed with drama, however, as all 13 girls teams were named in order of their finish–beginning with the team that finished last.

 Ten teams later, Deerfield, unsurprisingly, had yet to hear its name called out, as only the three medal winners were now about to be called to the podium.

“The third-place finisher, to our great relief, was Andover,” said Cullinane. “Then, when St. Paul’s was announced as the second-place finisher … we all went crazy … we didn’t have to hear our name announced … we finally knew we had accomplished our goal.”

“I think … in the back of our minds … we all sorta knew we’d won,” said Devinne Cullinane (14), who led the Big Green charge to victory with a third-place finish in 19:01, just 1:23 off the winning pace, “but when they announced St. Paul’s was the second-place finisher, we finally knew for sure … and we just went nuts.

“We were all standing around together in the St. Paul’s School dining hall, which is where they held the awards ceremony,” recalled the younger Cullinane, “and I think we all reacted to the news in different ways. Some of the kids started yelling and screaming, some began jumping up and down and hugging their teammates while others were just so relieved, they started crying. I was so happy I can’t really remember how I reacted … it was probably a combination of all three.

“It was just a surreal day,” added Cullinane, who received the Moreau Hunt Trophy as the team’s MVP for the third straight year. This fall, however, she shared the award with fellow co-captain Lila Lutes (14). “It’s a day I know my teammates and I will never forget … and not just because we finished first.”     

In the end, Andover’s bronze medal came via a 112-point effort, while St. Paul’s grabbed the silver medal, just five points off the winning pace with 87 points. The Big Green, meanwhile, reached the gold-medal tier of the podium for the second consecutive year, placing two runners in the top 10 and two others within the top 25 finishers to chalk up 82 points.

Phoebe Mors’s (15) followed Cullinane with an eighth-place finish in a field featuring 90 runners, with a time of 19:51, while Caroline Wagner (14) also earned a berth on the All-New England squad by finishing 13th in 20:07. Lutes wound up 25th in 20:36, as Samantha Morse (15) finished 33rd in 20:57. Lauren Ilsley (16) hit the tape 47th at 21:28, while Margo Downes (16) closed out the Big Green varsity score sheet in 58th spot with a time of 21:51.

Claire Petrus (16), meanwhile, added to Deerfield’s celebratory mood, as she captured the JV competition, which featured 100 runners in a time of 20:57.  She bested the second-place finisher by 33 seconds.

If you thought the awards ceremony was the lone stressful part of the day for the runners, however, you would be sadly mistaken. The craziness began early–like at the starting line. This fall’s championship race featured four restarts.

“The starting line for the race simply wasn’t wide enough to accommodate all the runners,” explained Lutes, who triggered the first restart when she tripped over another runner’s leg and fell. “So, to accommodate everyone, the starting line took the shape of a semicircle, with everyone an equal distance from a pair of markers located 100 meters into the race.

“Unfortunately,” added Lutes, “rather than being able to run straight, everyone had to angle toward the middle of the course to make it between the markers and in doing so it caused some of the runners … like me … to trip and fall and if anyone falls within the first 100 meters of the race, the rules say the race has to be restarted.”

Many coaches, who had just watched their charges capture a second straight New England pennant and own a three-year regular-season undefeated streak that now stands at 24 meets, might be tempted to dwell a bit too much on the past rather than look ahead to the future. That’s not the case with Cullinane, however.

“We’ve been pretty successful over the past few years,” admitted Cullinane, whose teams have now returned home from the past four New England Championships with medals–two gold, one silver and one bronze–dangling from their necks. “Just because you’ve been successful, though, doesn’t mean you want to become comfortable with that success and begin to rest on your laurels.

“As a team, no matter how successful you are in November … you have to start from scratch the following September,” added Cullinane. “Every team loses runners to graduation and must replace them with new runners, whom, if you’ve been successful, you hope will be able to fill the voids in your lineup.

“Plus,” added Cullinane, “every team runs into injuries during the season and, there again, you just hope other runners can pick up the slack. So, under the circumstances, I think it’s best to acknowledge the program’s achievements but yet continue to look to the future.”

Despite a second straight undefeated regular season, the Big Green skipper admitted seeing the opposition narrow the competitive gap between them and his defending champs.

“We were unstoppable last year, but this year many of our opponents upped their game, in fact we had a couple of real close calls on the schedule,” said Cullinane, referring to a 28-29 victory over Hotchkiss and a 25-30 trimming of Andover. “The big key through it all, however, was our preparation … we made sure we hit our peak at the championship meet.”

As has been well documented, it has been Cullinane’s niece, Devinne, who has been the catalyst during Deerfield’s back-to-back treks to the summit of New England prep school girls cross country with consecutive third-place finishes.

“Devinne has been the backbone of the team,” said her proud uncle. “She’s not only an outstanding athlete, but a total leader on campus.” And so, it won’t come as any surprise when Cullinane described Devinne and fellow senior Lilah Lutes as “the two best captains we’ve ever had!”

This fall’s run for the roses turned into déjà vu all over again for Cullinane, who will be running cross country and track at Cornell next year. Not only did she finish third once again, but also finished third to the same two runners who beat her out last year.  For the second straight year, Andover’s Anoush Shehadeh finished first, while Sami Glass of Hotchkiss wound up second.

“It was a great run,” said Cullinane of a four-year career at Deerfield that saw her finish eighth during her sophomore campaign. “This season was much more competitive than last season, but we expected that. Once you win a New England championship, you always have a target on your back. Now that we’ve won it again, I have a feeling we made that target a much bigger one for next year’s team.

“Overall,” added Cullinane, “I’d like to think that over the past two years, my teammates and I have left behind a legacy of a championship program.”

Morss, who has now chalked up a pair of eighth-place finishes in the past two title treks and who, along with fellow captains elect Morse and Nahla Gedeon Achi (15), will attempt to lengthen that legacy, feels whatever success Deerfield has met over the past few years has had a ripple effect on the competition, too.

“I feel as though the success we’ve met with over the past few years has caused the other teams that we face to step up their game as well,” said Morss. “Many of them did but in the end, we still prevailed.”