NFA's Lenehan steals the show

Members of the East Lyme and Waterford boys' cross country teams take off at the beginning of Saturday's CIAC Class MM championship at Wickham Park in Manchester. ECC champion East Lyme finished fourth in the race.
Members of the East Lyme and Waterford boys' cross country teams take off at the beginning of Saturday's CIAC Class MM championship at Wickham Park in Manchester. ECC champion East Lyme finished fourth in the race. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

Manchester - The subject of Brianna Lenehan's winning performance Saturday came up at the finish line near the end of the CIAC Cross Country Championships.

A race official commented that Lenehan, Norwich Free Academy's talented senior, ran the race of her life.

It's hard to argue with that statement.

Lenehan looked impressive, turning the Class LL race into a runaway, as she cruised to first in 18 minutes, 51 seconds and won by a 26-second margin on the 3.1-mile Wickham Park course.

Not only did Lenehan dominate her event, she also posted the best time of any race on the day, making her one of the favorites in Friday's State Open.

Lenehan rode the momentum and confidence gained from capturing the ECC Championship on Oct. 18.

"It was a great performance," NFA coach Kara Kochanski-Vendola said. "She had a good race at the ECC and it was a big confidence-builder. And she really likes this course. We had a game plan and she stuck to it."

Lenehan showed a killer instinct, starting strong and establishing an early lead and never letting up until crossing the finish line. It was her first state individual title.

"I felt really good, actually," Lenehan said. "It was definitely important (to win). I was happy with the ECC and I just want to continue with success in my last year. It means a lot."

Even with a comfortable advantage, Lenehan still kept track of her competition. Hannah Debalsi of Staples was in striking distance at about the midway point, trailing by about 100 meters.

Lenehan looked over her shoulder a few times but had nothing to worry about.

"I'm more used to being on somebody's shoulder and working until the end," Lenehan said. "This was a little different than what I'm used to but at least it worked out."

Now she is looking forward to the State Open, which also will be held at Wickham Park. Plainfield's Kerri Ruffo, who won the Class SS race in 19:40, will be in the field. The pair battled for the ECC championship, with Lenehan winning by 16 seconds over Ruffo.

"We really, really, really do run well together," Ruffo said. "I don't know why. We work together. I wish she were my teammate."

Griswold had the best day of any girls' team from the Eastern Connecticut Conference, winning a class title for the fourth time in seven years. Freshman Meagan Perez placed sixth (20:53) to lead the Wolverines.

Waterford senior Sara-Caitrin Mandelburg also qualified for the State Open, placing 10th in Class M in 21:01.

"I'm not going to say it's not well-deserved," Mandelburg said. "Everyone in this sport works their rear-ends off until the end. It was good to see the return on that."

The top two teams and first 12 runners in each class qualified for the State Open, as well as the next fastest eight teams and 30 individuals.

In the boys' competition, St. Bernard freshman Connor Gralton ran as cool as a veteran in Class S, finishing sixth in 17:30. It was his second straight strong effort; he placed third in the ECC race.

"I was definitely nervous at the ECC," Gralton said. "Here, if I qualified (for the State Open), then that's great and that's terrific. If I don't qualify, it's still a good season."

Gralton helped the Saints finish third overall in Class S.

"It was a very good day," St. Bernard coach Brad Columbus. "I'm excited. We were hoping to be up in the top three. Obviously, you want to make it to the Open. It's good for the school."

East Lyme, on the other hand, came away a bit disappointed in Class MM. The Vikings had high hopes to qualify for the State Open but fell short, finishing fourth. They will be represented on Friday by seniors Jon Combies and Ben Ostrowski who placed 11th (17:19) and 12th (17:21), respectively.

Ostrowski had to deal with a messy bloody nose.

"(The blood) was all over him," Combies said. "I figured that he wasn't going to be as strong at the end that he had the potential to be, so I just wanted to help him out. We went 11 and 12 and moved on. I was so grateful for that."

Old Lyme sophomore Ross Golebiewski also moved on, finishing eighth in Class SS in 17:32. The Wildcats took fourth.

"I didn't think I was going to get that," Golebiewski said. "I was expecting 15th or 20th. I'm so excited."

g.keefe@theday.com

Montville's Jesse Joseph and Griffin Waller of Bacon Academy, left, make their push toward the finish line Saturday during the CIAC Class M boys' cross country championship at Wickham Park in Manchester. Joseph finished 19th and Waller was 20th.
Montville's Jesse Joseph and Griffin Waller of Bacon Academy, left, make their push toward the finish line Saturday during the CIAC Class M boys' cross country championship at Wickham Park in Manchester. Joseph finished 19th and Waller was 20th. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo
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