Gruczka shows he’s a ‘cross country guy,’ Vikings are top team at ECC boys’ meet
Norwich — Ryan Gruczka was starting to think maybe he just wasn’t a “cross country guy,” so to speak, with so many successes in indoor and outdoor track but not yet having rung up that shining moment in cross country.
“My mom would tell me, ‘You’re a cross country guy. Don’t forget that’s where you started,’” Gruczka said. “I started in middle school. I did cross country. Cross country was first.”
Stonington’s Gruczka became the best cross country guy in the Eastern Connecticut Conference on Thursday, winning the individual league title at Norwich Golf Course in 16 minutes, 39 seconds over 3.1 miles, outgunning East Lyme’s high-powered duo of Brendan Fant (2nd, 16:51) and Sean McCauley (3rd, 16:52).
East Lyme won its fifth straight team title with 48 points, beating out Griswold (84), Norwich Free Academy (89) and Woodstock Academy (94).
Gruczka’s previous best finish at an ECC cross country meet was 16th, his place in last season’s race after he collapsed about 200 meters from the finish and crawled over the line. He was 17th as a freshman and the league meet was not held his sophomore year due to COVID.
“Leading up to this, I kept telling myself, ‘I have track ECC championships, I have indoor track championships. I need this one,” Gruczka said. “Obviously, this is my senior year. That was the main goal.
“I’ve run at a lot of ECC championships indoor, outdoor, cross country. This one’s just something special for me after what happened last year. I just think back to, ‘I’m not going to be on the ground again in pain.’ It’s awesome to get out here.”
After East Lyme’s Fant and McCauley, Woodstock’s Christian Menounos was fourth and Bacon Academy’s Ryan Moores fifth, with Griswold’s Michael Strain, Woodstock’s Vince Bastura, Montville’s Dylan Horkey, Griswold’s Lucas Strain and NFA’s Sawyer Barile rounding out the top 10.
For East Lyme, Fant and McCauley were joined by Nate Bergman (11th), Jilali Benjdid (15th) and Matthew Carrier (17th) in scoring, and also Kai Ritz (21st) and Ted Bergman (30th).
With East Lyme expected to contend for a Class MM state title next weekend and an ultimate team berth in the New England championship race, coach Mike Flynn asked his runners not to do anything crazy Thursday.
“I stressed to Brendan and Sean this week that this was a team race so if (Gruczka) was going to go out hard, to play it smart because this is not the time to take that extra risk and have it backfire,” Flynn said. “To their credit, they ran even better than I had hoped for. That was really fun to see. That speaks to Brendan, especially his maturation of becoming a runner.”
Not that Fant, a senior captain along with Ted Bergman, didn’t hope to beat Gruczka, whom he edged earlier in the season at the Ocean State Cross Country Invitational (16:17.9-16:31.5).
“Absolutely,” Fant said. “Every time I get on the course, the goal is going to be to win, especially in a championship meet like this. That was the goal. The even bigger goal today was to win as a team. That’s what we’ve been training for all season ... I really thought getting out there today and running for my team was the priority.
“At the end of the day, Ryan ran a great race. He’s an excellent competitor. He definitely deserved to win this race today.”
Flynn said he knew since last season that this East Lyme team was going to be successful, judging by the results and the youthfulness of last year’s team. Then, as the winter and spring track seasons progressed, you could see the Vikings’ progression on paper.
“They’ve been on a year-long plan to get them to these next few weeks,” Flynn said. “It’s been a very slow build of training. They’re finally starting to realize they’ve got a shot to make it to New Englands, to try to win a state title.”
East Lyme locked up the season-long ECC Division I title, with Griswold winning Division II, Montville (Division III) taking its first divisional title since 1988 and Wheeler taking Division IV.