The Day's All-Area Boys' Cross Country Runner of the Year: East Lyme's Sam Whittaker

East Lyme High School senior Sam Whittaker was named The Day's 2018 All-Area Boys' Cross Country Runner of the Year. Whittaker won the Class MM state championship in 16 minutes, 25 seconds, also leading the Vikings to ECC and Class MM team titles for the second straight season. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
East Lyme High School senior Sam Whittaker was named The Day's 2018 All-Area Boys' Cross Country Runner of the Year. Whittaker won the Class MM state championship in 16 minutes, 25 seconds, also leading the Vikings to ECC and Class MM team titles for the second straight season. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

He was an elementary student at the Salem School and Sam Whittaker became part of a running initiative there.

For every five miles, you got your name announced over the loudspeaker at school. Whittaker went through one sheet of paper he was given to make note of miles one through 50 and yet another sheet for miles 51-100. After that they politely told him, “use the back.”

It was the beginning of Whittaker’s affection for running.

“Running is a big part of my life,” Whittaker said.

A senior at East Lyme High School who led the Vikings to the last two Class MM championships, Whittaker was named The Day’s 2018 All-Area Boys’ Cross Country Runner of the Year. He also won the Class MM individual title in 16 minutes, 25 seconds, and was 16th in the State Open, earning a trip to the New England championship meet for the first time in his career.

And to think, Whittaker considers cross country the worst sport out of his three at East Lyme, labeling himself more of an indoor and outdoor track athlete. That was such a concern to Whittaker, not having what he perceived as a defining moment in cross country, he was afraid it would cost him a chance to run at the Division I level in college.

That worry was obliterated, however, the week of Oct. 21. First, Whittaker committed to compete next season at Division I Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Then he ran to the individual state crown after finishing second the week before at the Eastern Connecticut Conference meet.

Whittaker was the 2017 ECC individual cross country champion before finishing as runner-up this season to teammate Chris Abbey.

“Sam’s personality … he wants to run and be successful,” East Lyme coach Sam Harfenist said. “I think sometimes their perception of what success is isn’t entirely accurate. I happen to think he was a lot more successful than he gives himself credit for. Like most kids, he gets it in his head he’s a 3,200-meter (track) runner, he’s a 1,600 runner. And no matter how successful he is in cross country, it doesn’t necessarily change that viewpoint. I think he needed to win the MM (title).”

“That was definitely the best moment of the season,” Whittaker said of the championship. “I don’t think I got, like, a stellar cross country race.”

Whittaker calls himself “pretty selfish” at the beginning of his East Lyme career. When East Lyme won the Class MM team championship a year ago, Whittaker, a junior, was disappointed in his own personal results (although he was third in the state meet and later named The Day’s Runner of the Year).

But Whittaker has also spent his career humbly trying to emulate former teammate Vann Moffett, a 2016 East Lyme graduate and former individual state champion, paying tribute to Moffett’s talent and leadership ability.

“He tried to emulate Vann in every way possible,” Harfenist said. “Every ending or milestone was always a comparison to Vann. He latched on to the idea that if he was like Vann, he would be successful. I think he did a great job.

“Running was an innate ability. Putting the team before oneself took a while. (Whittaker) grew into a true champion in every way.”

Whittaker finished the State Open in 16:36. He hoped for a better placement than 16th, but said he struggled in the mud and just wanted to qualify for the New England meet, something which eluded him a year ago.

That’s one of the reasons — the lack of mud — why Whittaker favors track over cross country.

“A lot of the kids that beat me in cross (country), I blow out in track,” Whittaker said. “I think I have a lot of speed. When you throw in grass and hills and stuff, it becomes more endurance. Track is how fast you can run. Throw in all those other obstacles … it’s hard for me to do well when there’s a lot of obstacles.”

Whittaker, the Class MM 3,200-meter state champion in outdoor track, still has a few goals in mind for the remainder of his East Lyme career.

Heading into indoor track season, he’d like to break the ECC mile record of 4:27.02, set by Steve Taylor of Fitch in 1999. Whittaker won the mile at last year’s ECC Division I meet in 4:29.82, not realizing he was so close to a record-setting performance. He’d like to go back to New Englands and hopes to qualify for the national meet in the championship division.

Whittaker plans to major in biochemistry or chemistry at Bucknell with hopes of eventually becoming a physical therapist. He is the second youngest of Sharon and James Whittaker’s five children, with younger brother Johnny still at the Salem School.

Whittaker, who occasionally will even watch video of professional runners on YouTube, is proud of how far he’s come since his own days at Salem, athletically and personally.

“Now that I’m older, I don’t worry about me. I worry about my teammates,” Whittaker said. “… I hope I filled (Moffett’s) shoes right.”

v.fulkerson@theday.com

 

East Lyme's Sam Whittaker, front row, right, after his team won the Class MM state championship Oct. 26 at Wickham Park in Manchester, has committed to run next year for Division I Bucknell University. Whittaker also won the individual Class MM crown (16:25) and was 16th in the State Open (16:36) to qualify for a spot at the New England championship meet for the first time in his career. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
East Lyme's Sam Whittaker, front row, right, after his team won the Class MM state championship Oct. 26 at Wickham Park in Manchester, has committed to run next year for Division I Bucknell University. Whittaker also won the individual Class MM crown (16:25) and was 16th in the State Open (16:36) to qualify for a spot at the New England championship meet for the first time in his career. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

The Day's 2018 All-Area Boys' Cross Country Team

Player of the Year — Sam Whittaker (East Lyme)

Chris Abbey (East Lyme)

Noah Barnhart (East Lyme)

Aidan Brown (NFA)

Dylan McGuire (NFA)

Aidan Pepin (Waterford)

Ian Poe (Fitch)

Peyton Ramsey (NFA)

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