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You can call them the magnificent seven. You can call them trailblazers. You can call them queens of the course. Most importantly, you can call the athletes who ran for Branford girls' cross country at the Class MM meet-as well as their teammates-state champions.
That's because the Branford girls' cross country squad raced to first place at the Class MM State Championship at Wickham Park on Oct. 26. The Hornets scored 117 points to best runner-up New Fairfield's total of 127 behind stellar showings from sophomore Cyrene Nicholas, sophomore Anneliese Troidle, senior captain Tracy Crookston, junior Jess Lohret, sophomore Maddy Vitale, senior captain Sophie Bysiewicz, and sophomore Cleo Kryiakides.
Coach Kevin Connell's squad has certainly achieved a lot in recent seasons-such as winning eight straight Oronoque titles and finishing third at last year's Class MM meet-but this victory marked the first state title in the history of a Hornets' program that dates back decades.
"It feels incredible to be the first team to do it. I am so proud of all the girls that we were the ones to pull through and win," said Nicholas, who was Branford's top finisher and placed third overall. "Bing [Assistant Coach Bing Miller] told us we won even before they announced it and we were screaming and hugging each other for the next five minutes. It was really exciting. I was so happy."
Nicholas claimed third place with a time of 19:43 on the 3.1-mile course at Wickham. Troidle placed ninth at 20:26, Crookston was 26th with a mark of 21:33, Lohret finished 27th at 21:38, Vitale placed 52nd by running 22:25, Bysiewicz was in 74th at 23:03, and Kryiakides came in 92nd with her time of 23:39.
The Hornets recorded a team time of 1 hour, 45 minutes, and 45 seconds at the meet. Although New Fairfield had a slightly faster mark of 1:45:15 and featured the individual race winner, the championship was decided by which team posted the lowest point total based on where its top five runners placed. New Fairfield's top five finished 1st, 20th, 30th, 32nd, and 44th and those numbers add up to 127, whereas the Hornets' top five places total 117. And even though Bysiewicz and Kyriakides didn't officially score points for Branford, they still finished way ahead of New Fairfield's No. 6 and 7 runners, who placed 117th and 118th, respectively.
Coach Connell felt his squad's depth proved the primary difference in the victory and also detailed some of the other contributing factors, such as his athletes' steadfast work ethic and close-knit chemistry.
"Our depth made a huge difference and was a big advantage for us. We knew what we'd get from our first three, but we needed our other kids to run well and they came through. We also have a few other people who've been competing to be our sixth and seventh runners and so we've really improved on the back end," Connell said. "Our athletes have had a great spirit amongst themselves all year. They worked hard during the summer and they created a positive atmosphere throughout the season. Our kids have a closeness that defines any successful team."
Connell then gave an overview of the performances put forth by each of his seven runners.
"Cyrene wants to be in the category of one of the state's top runners and she proved that she is, beating out Danae Rivers of Cross [who was 28 seconds behind Nicholas in fourth]. She ran a tremendous race," said Connell. "Anneliese Troidle gutted out the whole race and hung in as long as she could, Jess was her usual steady self, and Tracy has had some leg problems, but had a good race and was smiling when she ran past us. Maddy Vitale didn't even run last year, but came out for the team, and has been a huge part of our success; she starts out slow and then comes on strong. Sophie didn't run at last year's state meet, but ran a very good race this year, and Cleo has been steady as our No. 6 or 7 runner all season."
Another athlete Connell complimented was senior captain April Simmons, who didn't compete due to injury, yet still displayed the leadership she has all season by cheering on her teammates. When the Hornets took their championship photo, they told Simmons to join the group, which brought her to tears. Coach Connell said that moment symbolizes what his program is all about and Simmons's fellow senior captain Crookston agrees.
"Everyone on this team is so supportive of each other. We always have each other's backs and people who didn't even run still came to support us, which helped us a lot," Crookston said. "It was a really great feeling to win this meet. Everyone ran their best race and that's what made it happen."
Along with the seven people who ran, plus Simmons, Branford's other athletes are juniors Zoe Smiarowski; sophomores Sophie Angelo, Kendall Simmons, Etta Hanlon, and Sharon Webster; and freshmen Morgan Gilman, Courtney Cosgrove, Omiama Nasry, and Megan Adams.