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    Monday, April 15, 2024

    East Lyme’s Sam Whittaker taking his final bows at CCSU ... and he’s better than ever

    Former East Lyme all-state runner Sam Whittaker, who competed for four seasons at Bucknell University, is completing his collegiate eligibility as a fifth-year grad student at Central Connecticut. (Photo courtesy of Bucknell athletics)

    There was a time when it crossed Sam Whittaker’s mind that upon graduating this spring from Bucknell University, where he competed at the Division I level in cross country and track, he might not run again.

    He graduated from Bucknell, in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, with a degree in biochemistry/cell and molecular biology, a successful running career which included All-Mid-Atlantic honors in cross country and no regrets.

    Then, Whittaker got even better.

    “I don’t run with the team every day; 80% of the time I run by myself,” said Whittaker, the 2019 East Lyme High School graduate who is now using his grad year to run at Central Connecticut State University.

    “This summer, I didn’t see anyone. That’s where I found out I really do enjoy running. Basically, I run through Salem every day.”

    Whittaker earned All-Region honors last cross country season at the Mid-Atlantic Championships at Penn State, finishing 12th in a 10K time of 30 minutes, 39.5 seconds. He also set Bucknell’s indoor 3,000-meter record in February in a meet at Boston University, finishing in 8:02.55, and ran a career best indoor mile of 4:05.35.

    By choosing to use his extra year of eligibility at Central — the NCAA granted all athletes an additional year due to COVID-19 — Whittaker joins former East Lyme teammates Chris Abbey and Ryan McCauley, both of whom ran alongside Whittaker when the Vikings won the Class MM championship in 2017.

    This season’s team at Central won the LIU Fall Festival and the Paul Short Run at Lehigh.

    On Friday, Oct. 13, with the Blue Devils competing at the IC4A/ECAC Championships in the Bronx, Whittaker finished third on the 8K course in 24:00.7 to set a personal best for cross country.

    Central will run in the Northeast Conference Championships at LIU on Saturday and on Friday, Nov. 10, Whittaker will run at the NCAA Northeast Regional at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, with the capability of reaching the NCAA championship meet for the first time in his career.

    Whittaker has been named Northeast Conference Cross Country Athlete of the Week in back-to-back weeks.

    “Enjoyable,” said Central Connecticut coach Eric Blake of what it’s like to work with the 22-year-old Whittaker. “I told Sam when I recruited him I wouldn’t treat him like an 18-year-old. He has a lot of experience and we want to use that in his training.

    “We have a good blend of keeping some of his training that has worked for him in the past but also adding in some of our traditional team workouts.”

    Whittaker points to being healthy consistently the past year, resulting in his uninterrupted training, with precipitating the improvement he’s shown. Blake credits Whittaker’s experience and said if Whittaker does make it to the NCAA championship race it can be attributed to his maturity.

    Blake isn’t surprised by Whittaker’s success.

    “Not really,” Blake said. “That’s always been the plan and glad it’s going that way. He is one more year experienced, so that should help, too. My biggest concern this summer was the transition into the team’s training and how his body would respond. So far, so good.

    “... We need things to go well (at the NCAA regional) but he has a lot of things going for him, including his racing experience.”

    Whittaker was The Day’s 2017 and 2018 All-Area Cross Country Runner of the Year, leading East Lyme to Class MM championships in both seasons. Whittaker was Eastern Connecticut Conference individual champion in 2017 and Class MM champion in 2018 in a 1-2 finish with Abbey.

    Whittaker also claimed The Day’s 2018 Indoor Track Athlete of the Year honor, winning the state’s 1,600-meter title.

    He enjoyed every moment at Bucknell.

    “I don’t think I would have changed anything,” Whittaker said last week. “I think it was just from Day 1 when I showed up at cross country camp. You just had a great group of guys, all so friendly ... a group of guys who are committed to a goal, to kind of getting things done.”

    Whittaker put his name in the transfer portal for his grad year and went on an official visit to high-profile Tennessee, where his host was the 10K national champion. But while Whittaker was originally planning to get his Ph.D., he decided that was too big a challenge to pursue along with athletics.

    He is now working toward his master’s degree in data science/bioinformatics at Central. He has two years of experience at Nalas Engineering Services as a biochem intern — “Computers are everything now,” Whittaker said. “Scientists generate all this data and we make something useful out of it. There’s just a huge market for that.”

    Whittaker, who very much enjoys having Abbey and McCauley as teammates again, said it was hard to tell at first where he stood as a competitor.

    “At the start of the season, you’re never your best,” Whittaker said. “I had some decent performances. But this past week at the IC4A championship, I was third in a cross country PR. I beat a lot of guys I didn’t think I was ahead of. I kind of shocked myself there.

    “It’s nice having Chris and Ryan there. It wasn’t like I was going somewhere completely foreign to me. There’s a learning curve when you’re on a new team. Your teammates can help you out. Also coach Blake, he’s a runner, he works with me to find the best way to do things.

    “I always wanted to be a Division I runner. That was always the goal. It has been kind of like living a dream. If I could, I would go back to freshman year at Bucknell and do the whole thing over again.”

    v.fulkerson@theday.com

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