At the start of the season, Kerri Ruffo didn't think she had a chance to win the Eastern Connecticut Conference girls' cross country championship just yet, with reigning champ Brandy LeClair back for her senior season at Fitch High School.
But if Ruffo, a sophomore at Plainfield, wasn't one of the favorites in the ECC meet before …
"She is now," Norwich Free Academy coach Kara Kochanski-Vendola said recently.
Ruffo earned her status as one of the frontrunners for Thursday's meet with a victory in the girls' championship race at the Wickham Invitational on Oct. 8, finishing the 3.1-mile course in 19 minutes, 45 seconds. Ruffo called that a personal record on the course by 35 seconds.
"I was extremely surprised," Ruffo said of the Wickham victory in a telephone interview. "That's the best I've ever run there."
The ECC meet is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. at Norwich Golf Course, where Ruffo was eighth last season. The boys' race will follow at 3:30 p.m.
"ECCs will definitely be the most intense race of the season," Ruffo said.
Among the things Ruffo's looking forward to at the ECC meet is squaring off against Griswold's Alyssa Brehler, sophomore to sophomore. Ruffo and Brehler each have wins over each other, with Brehler starting the series with a victory in middle school, Ruffo said.
Brehler also won a title at Wickham, finishing first in the seeded race in 19:41, the best time of the day for ECC runners.
Ruffo has run area road races since she was a young girl. She said this year she feels stronger and faster. She also credits her coaches at Plainfield, saying they taught her to be a stronger racer. She was third in the 1,600 meters at the ECC meet during outdoor track (5:15.20), sixth in the Class M meet (5:23.22) and third in Class M (11:42.65) and 14th in the State Open (11:31.8) in the 3,200.
"There's six or so amazing girls," Ruffo said of Thursday's ECC showdown. "It's so hard to tell. … At Wickham, I was like, 'I really have to push.' For this race, I'm 10 times more excited. One thing I know is two sophomores are going to be up there."