Staples fall preview: Cross country teams each have ace in lineup
Updated 6:48 am, Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Hannah DeBalsi was present at several of the Staples girls cross country team's preseason meet-ups like she had been for the previous four seasons.
But this time it was in a supportive role before embarking on her next challenge.
DeBalsi made the Staples record book her own with numerous records and championships. Now at Stanford, DeBalsi leaves a sizable gap in the Wreckers' lineup.
“I did think a lot about how that whole class were freshmen when I started coaching,” said coach Amanda Morgan. “Of course we’re going to miss her in terms of leadership on the team, but also I was thinking about how I’m going to miss joking with her and her sense of humor.”
But both the Staples boys and girls teams each feature a runner who are ready to challenge for an FCIAC title.
Susie Martin is the top FCIAC returner from last year's race — which Morgan described as her strongest run of the season. Martin will lead a younger group of runners after the departure of several key seniors.
“Being a captain is really cool and I think it will be a tightly-knit team this year,” said Martin, who began running in eighth grade. “I just want to improve my times as much as I can and place as high as I can for the team. I think we can still finish really well this year.”
Without a heavy hitter in DeBalsi winning each race, the postseason offers the opportunity for Martin and other top runners across the league to earn a gold medal.
“That’s a lot of pressure to go in with the goal of winning,” Morgan said. “In a weird way more pressure than last year when she went into the meet thinking I could finish as high as second.”
Ridgefield are the major favorites to repeat as team champions, leaving the Wreckers in a position to chase improved times and a top three finish.
“As long as all of us work hard together and have a good vibe as a team, that’s what I want to see,” Martin said.
On the boys side, Zakeer Ahmad capped his junior season with a third place finish at New Balance Outdoor Nationals in the 1-mile run. Ahmad finished fifth at FCIACs in cross country a year ago.
“He has a lot of natural ability and he has really bought into our training program,” said coach Laddie Lawrence, who will begin his 49th season coaching this fall. “He’s approached the summer running very religiously; he’s at a point now where he’s ahead of everybody.”
Ahmad is being recruited following his strong season by several Division I schools.
“He doesn’t have the same kind of raw speed as Henry (Wynne) had, but he’s closing,” Lawrence said.
Brandon Harrington and Brian MacCordy are the other two captains for the Wreckers, but Harrington is currently nursing an injury that leaves his season in jeopardy. Both were crucial parts of last season’s successes.
The boys team captured the State Open for the first time since 1990 and narrowly missed out on FCIAC and Class LL titles. Five of the team’s eight runners are back from last season’s deep squad.
“I think it’s important to have depth,” Lawrence said. “We and three or four good freshman last year who are looking to fill the roles of the seniors who graduated.”
The championship seasons begins Oct. 19 for both squads with the FCIAC meet at Waveny Park in New Canaan. The Class LL (Oct. 29) and State Open (Nov. 4) both take place at Wickham Park in Manchester.