As coach of Staples High's cross country and track programs for the last four decades, Laddie Lawrence is a living, breathing runner's manual.
Lawrence -- who ran for the school during the 1960s, when he was a state champion in track -- is the quintessential teacher, thoroughly versed in his subject. He's helped mold countless runners over the years, often tweaking their form to burn a pivotal second or two off their race times.
Some runners need a lot of refining to realize their potential. Freshman Hannah DeBalsi, apparently, is the exception.
The joy she takes in running and an uncommon discipline have spirited the ninth grader to the front of the pack among the state's distance runners, and she already holds one state record in indoor track.
As a freshman, DeBalsi arrived at Staples' cross country practice last August with relatively little mileage under her belt as a runner. Before that, her runs were limited to 1.5-mile jogs with the Bedford Middle School Running Club, and she had competed in just one official race -- the Westport Minuteman 5k, last April. Competing against youths and adults, she completed the race in 21 minutes and 24 seconds, good for 31st overall and second in the female 14-and-under age group.
"I was racing my dad," DeBalsi proudly recalled last Friday. "He told me he was going to beat me, but I beat him."
Despite her inexperience, DeBalsi made a resounding first impression with Lawrence at her first cross country practice, sticking stride for stride with the team's top runners.
"When they came back from their run, I was talking with the girls and (assistant coach) Amanda (Parrish) was there," Lawrence recalled. "I said, `How'd their workout go?' Amanda told me, `Well Hannah stayed right with us.' I go, `She's a freshman, right?' ... I turned to Amanda and said `We've got another runner.'
"It was that early. I didn't know how good she was going to be."
CLIMBING THE LEADERBOARD
DeBalsi, as it turned out, did more than just keep pace with her teammates once the season began. The freshman, who turned to running as a hobby and found remarkable joy in the sport, quickly established herself as one of the region's top high school runners.
She placed third in the FCIAC championships with a time of 14:34, second in the LL state meet (19:17) and 16th at the State Open (19:49). She capped her season on Nov. 10 with what Lawrence called "without a doubt, her best race," finishing 11th (19:32) in the New England championships in Cumberland, Maine.
"I definitely exceeded my expectations because I had no expectations," DeBalsi said. "I'm happy that I've had so much success, but even if I didn't, I like running. So it's not all about doing well."
Lawrence said that DeBalsi's discipline -- a trait that he believes is derived from her time spent practicing martial arts, taekwondo -- helped fuel her ascent.
"When she came in, with just the raw talent, she was a lot better off than most kids her age. That was obvious her first or second day," said Lawrence, who has coached cross country at Staples for 41 years, the last 11 with both the boys and the girls teams. "Technique-wise, she pretty much had pretty good running technique right from the beginning. I think the fact that she was doing the taekwondo ... that disciplined her body very well. It was an easy transition for her."
DeBalsi's rise as a phenom has carried over to the indoor track campaign, during which she's distinguished herself as one of the state's elite runners in the 3,200 and 1,000 meters. At the LL state championships on Feb. 16, she ran the 3,200 in 10:44.57, breaking Ridgefield's Heather Stephens' state record (10:45.11). DeBalsi also placed first in the 3,200 in the State Open (11:00.37).
"Just to be a freshman and to do what she's done, it's incredible," said Jesse McCrae, Staples' ninth-year girls indoor track coach. "Once in a while, you're very fortunate to get that special talent."
A `TENACIOUS' DRIVE
McCrae praised DeBalsi's motivation as a runner, calling her "extremely competitive."
"That's just something we talk about on a daily basis, is wanting to compete," he said. "When someone beats her, she's not happy. She's highly motivated. That's what we just love to see."
For DeBalsi, her competitive mindset sets in regardless of the circumstances. She's shown that trait in one-mile races in gym class against her twin brother Devon, a rugby player, and in her meets with Staples.
"He's not really a runner," she said of her brother. "We'd get competitive about it ... sibling rivalry because we're twins. I don't like to lose."
But DeBalsi said she's had her share of disappointments on the track this winter, particularly during the FCIAC championships. She placed second in the 3,200 (10:50.41) and third in the 1,600 (5:07.27) after Westhill's Claire Howlett passed her in the final stretch of both events.
Lawrence made it clear that DeBalsi's competitive fire was evident early on.
"She's very tenacious. She's very competitive," Lawrence said. "She'll focus on certain aspects of her race. Don't get in her way."
DeBalsi, who holds Staples records in the 3,200 and 1,000 (3:00.03), believes that her enjoyment for running, more than any other aspect, has helped her develop into the standout she is. After all, it's the enjoyment, she said, that first drew her to the sport.
"I feel like it's almost an outlet for stress. I feel really relaxed when I run," she said. "You make really good friends that you can be really weird with, and they don't really care."
Even with her immediate success, DeBalsi is focused on getting better. Just how much better? Her coaches know what she's capable of.
"A lot has to do with physique. She's built like some of the world-class distance runners," Lawrence said of the petite DeBalsi. "I think she'll probably get a lot better. How good, I'm not sure. The potential certainly is there."
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