East Lyme boys' and girls' cross country begin defense of their ECC titles

Groton — Luke Anthony’s strength was cycling. He was given a push toward cross country by his parents prior to his freshman season at East Lyme, precisely a year ago.

Then, this summer he combined his aptitude on the bike with his newfound running pursuit to finish fourth in the nation in his age group at the USA Triathlon Youth and Junior National Championships in West Chester, Ohio.

Madison Sjostrom, a junior, said she didn’t necessarily listen to directions from coach Mike Flynn heading into her freshman and sophomore seasons at East Lyme. She referred to herself as “spacey.”

“Now here we are,” Sjostrom said. “I would say I definitely prepared more coming into my junior season.”

Meet the new East Lyme High School boys’ and girls’ cross country teams, same as the old ones.

Anthony finished first in 17 minutes, 16 seconds over 3.1 miles Tuesday and Sjostrom won the girls’ 2.4-mile race in 17:25, leading the two teams of Vikings, both defending Eastern Connecticut Conference champions, to a sweep of Ledyard and Fitch in the season-opening dual meet for all three teams.

East Lyme’s boys, the two-time defending Class MM champion now minus graduated individual state champion Sam Whittaker, beat Ledyard 19-37 and Fitch 15-42. The girls, who had only six varsity runners last year but added 21 newcomers to this season’s roster, had the first six finishers in the opener and eight of the top 10 to easily top Ledyard 15-49 and Fitch 15-50.

The Ledyard girls, led by Ally Tran in seventh, defeated Fitch 18-41 and the Ledyard boys got a 4-5 finish from Nick Johanson and Simon Reichert to beat Fitch 20-39.

“It’s still hard to get used to,” said East Lyme senior captain Chris Abbey, who was last year’s ECC cross country champ but generally ran with Whittaker pacing him in the past. “(Sam and I) ran six days a week together for a whole year (in cross country, indoor and outdoor track). Just talking … he would always have this information about guys we’re running against.

“It kind of feels different. I kind of struggled Saturday (at the Windham Invitational). I’m used to Sam just telling me the game plan.”

Following Anthony on Tuesday, Abbey was second in 18:11 and Fisher Macklin third in 18:12. Ben Rukundo was sixth in 18:25 and freshman Brendan Fant rounded out the Vikings’ top five by finishing seventh in 18:33. Simon Chidley was the top finisher for Fitch, eighth in 18:37.

“It will sort itself out,” East Lyme coach Sam Harfenist said of his team’s leadership at the top without Whittaker. “I’m not sure how it will sort itself out. It would be nice to have a crystal ball. … I had a talk with Chris today at lunch time and we came up with some solutions. He’ll get where he needs to get. It’s a nice trio. I told someone today, ‘I think as long as it’s a maroon jersey, we’re OK.’”

East Lyme’s girls’ team meanwhile, certainly has a serious side. The Vikings, who return their top five from last year’s league championship, are captained by seniors Gilly Goodwin and Samantha Lyster. The team won the freshman race at the Windham Invite on Saturday and had junior Belle Johnson win the junior varsity race.

On Tuesday, Sjostrom was followed by Goodwin second (17:31), freshman Izzy Pazzaglia third (17:59), Lyster fourth (18:04), Sydney Sager fifth (18:21) and freshman Kennedy Holsapple sixth (18:38).

“I would say it’s our positive energy,” Sjostrom said of the roster more than tripling in size from a year ago. “We’re fun to be around. If people asked me, I would say, ‘It’s really fun. Come join us.’”

But off the race course? The Vikings are not so serious.

Sjostrom, for instance, made cardboard cutouts of coach Mike Flynn’s dog, Pennie, a 10-year-old black lab/pit bull mix, and distributed them to everyone on the team. When Flynn boarded the East Lyme bus for the first road trip of the season, his runners all held up their pictures of Pennie to “Who Let the Dogs Out” as a musical backdrop.

“It was awesome,” Goodwin said of the additional team members. “We have really good depth. There’s not as much pressure, but we’re just as close as we were last year."

Flynn said Sjostrom, at the beginning of her career, would ask so many questions, he gave her a three-question limit per day. He said about halfway through the season, she had a competitive breakthrough.

“Now she knows when to focus,” Flynn said. “But before and after the race, she’s Madison. She’s never going to change her personality and I hope she doesn’t. It’s great. … If you saw them the day before or the hour before, you would say, ‘There’s no way this team is competitive.’ The minute they go to warm up, they flip the switch.”

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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