For Vikes, an appetizer before main course

Willimantic - Ben Ostrowski was playing for what would be the Eastern Connecticut Conference tournament champion East Lyme High School baseball team in the spring. And already, thoughts of running were creeping into his mind.

"At first you sorta think you're going to like a little break (from running)," Ostrowski said. "Then, after two weeks, you miss it."

With East Lyme's cross country team finishing third in Class MM last season, the Vikings just missed a spot in the State Open, for which the top two teams in each division qualify. East Lyme was then the last team to miss the cut for the Open when all the wild card teams were taken into consideration.

So for Ostrowski and the rest of his teammates, including returning fellow ECC all-stars Scott Butler and Jon Combies, there's been more than just a little bit of anticipation.

On Saturday, East Lyme finished tied for seventh in the boys' varsity two race at the 34th Haddad Windham Invitational with 195 points. The Vikings, led by Ostrowski in 17 minutes, 8.4 seconds, had an average team time of 17:41.7, the best in the area on the day.

The Vikings have one of their biggest meets in recent memory on Wednesday at Mohegan Park in Norwich, taking on Norwich Free Academy in a race between the top two contenders in the ECC Large Division.

NFA, last year's ECC Large champ which went on to finish seventh in the State Open, was 13th in the varsity one race with 335 points and an average team time of 17:45.3.

There are some who say East Lyme might be the favorite against NFA this week for the first time. East Lyme coach Sam Harfenist isn't buying it.

"We're still the underdog as far as the ECC goes. (NFA is) still the defending champ, right? Until we beat them?" Harfenist said. "I consider ourselves the underdog. I'm hoping we'll be successful, but we've never beaten them. Yes, a couple years ago, but (NFA) sat everybody. We haven't beaten them."

"Today, we wanted to look at the competition for states. It was an observation race," Ostrowski said. "But it's hard not to be competitive."

It was a day for the local teams which didn't really resemble anything from the past, but rather served as a window to the upcoming season.

NFA's Kyle Liang had the top local boys' time of the day, 16:29.8, good for 13th in the varsity one race. That was followed by St. Bernard freshman Connor Gralton's time of 16:56.6, placing him eighth in the varsity three event and Montville senior Jesse Joseph in 17:03.9.

Ledyard, which hopes to defend its ECC Medium Division titles this season, was fourth in the varsity two race with 219 points, led by sophomore Bryce Hedman in 17:11.9.

St. Bernard coach Brad Columbus, whose team hopes to put up a fight for the ECC Small title this season, said Gralton is no ordinary freshman.

"He's a very experienced runner, more than probably 95 percent of the kids at this meet," Columbus said. "He's run Mount Washington. He's run at the nationals for middle school. He doesn't come here green. It's his passion. He's going to have a long running career."

In the girls' competition, NFA's Brianna Lenehan did not compete due to soreness in her hip. Lenehan won the varsity one race last year, leading the Wildcats to the title.

This year, NFA was fifth with 171 points, but had five of the top 51 runners even without Lenehan. Alyssa Field, a sophomore, was 25th in 21:07.4.

The Wildcats also had one of their top runners, Reide Jacksin, competing in the freshman race.

Other top local girls' times belonged to Ledyard's Jordan Houdeshell in 20:09.8, Stonington's Antonia Reynolds in 20:59, St. Bernard's Heather Wallace in 21:02.9 and Waterford's Sara-Caitrin Mandelburg in 21:06.8.

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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