East Lyme boys repeat as Class MM cross country champs

Manchester — Sam Whittaker began the week by making a verbal commitment to run next season at Division I Bucknell. The East Lyme High School senior class, of which he is a part, won Spirit Week; Whittaker wore red flannel pajamas to school on Monday for Pajama Day.

Then came Friday and Whittaker blew the rest of the week, as satisfactory as it was, into oblivion.

Whittaker won the Class MM state cross country championship at Wickham Park in a personal-best 16 minutes, 25 seconds, leading the Vikings to a repeat of the division title. East Lyme, which got a 1-2 finish from Whittaker and junior Chris Abbey, placed its first five runners in the top 28 to finish with 53 points, defeating runner-up E.O. Smith (118).

"It's my week," said Whittaker, who finished second to Abbey last week in the Eastern Connecticut Conference championship meet.

"In cross country, I've had some all right races, but not like track. I really wanted to win. (Last week), everyone at school said, 'Chris beat you?' It was kind of annoying, but I didn't let that get to me. I can't really pick it. It's more a mental thing. This past week, I tried to mentally prepare. In my head, I knew it was time to step it up."

Abbey was second in 16:38, with both East Lyme runners finishing ahead of last year's champion Anthony Golino of New Fairfield, who was third in 16:59. East Lyme's Noah Barnhart was eighth (17:11), followed by sophomores Ben Rukundo 14th (17:24) and Fisher Macklin 28th (17:52). Luke Anthony (34th) and Luciano Folz (65th) rounded out the roster for East Lyme, which earned a spot as a team in next week's State Open.

"It's equal, if not better than the first one," East Lyme coach Sam Harfenist said of the repeat, which followed last week's ECC championship. "There was a lot more internal pressure to get this one. Last year we were on no one's list until we just appeared.

"It felt a lot harder. To do it twice is phenomenal."

The Vikings returned the bulk of last year's team. But it wasn't as easy as all that.

Macklin, who was 19th in last year's state meet victory and East Lyme's No. 4 runner, tweaked his left Achilles tendon during a meet at Stonington this season and missed time with the injury — "That just shows Fisher's heart and dedication," Harfenist said. "I don't think he'll tell you it was easy."

And Rukundo was on the junior varsity last season.

"I'm very proud of what we did today," Rukundo said, "repeating."

"It's great," Whittaker said. "Running by yourself is one thing. They all surprised me ... it's hard to miss so much time (as Macklin did) and come back."

As for Whittaker, he was disappointed in his end-of-the-season results a year ago, finishing third in Class MM and 64th in the State Open, which did not qualify him for the New England meet. He vowed to train differently this season, saving something for the end.

"He told me not to worry," Harfenist said. "I can't say I listened. The kids were not worried, it was just us (coaches). ... It shows how (Whittaker has) grown over the last year. In the past, he's had trouble when he was confronted with a good runner. To really win it hands down ..."

Golino led the race for appromimately two-thirds of the 3.1-mile race before Whittaker passed him going up hill.

"I had an idea when to go in this race, but I took the opportunity when it came up," Whittaker said.

The top 12 individuals and the top two teams in each race automatically qualified for the State Open, back at Wickham Park. Other local qualifiers for the Open, all girls, were Montville's Mady Whittaker in Class SS (10th, 20:25), East Lyme's Madison Sjostrom in Class MM (11th, 20:34) and St. Bernard's Brigid Kunka in Class S (7th, 20:37). ECC girls' champion Jordan Malloy, a freshman from Bacon Academy, was sixth in Class M in 20:12.

"I feel like I raced pretty well," said Mady Whittaker, Sam's cousin, who last year reached the New England championship. "I can't control what others ran today. I'll come back for State Open and hopefully get all-state (top 7) then. I ran my PR last year; hopefully I PR next meet."

"My goal was to make Opens and make all-state, both of which I accomplished," said Kunka, who improved her time by more than two minutes from last year's S championship. "... I really focused on trying to become the best No. 1 runner on our team. I knew (former No. 1 runner Christina McCaffrey, a senior last year) was leaving and I had to fill the shoes. I'm going to text her tonight."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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