If the first half of her high school career is any indication of what the second half is going to bring, Staples junior Hannah DeBalsi is well on her way to establishing herself as a legendary distance runner.
DeBalsi, ranked as the top runner in the country per Dyestat.com, is coming of a 2-mile national championship in outdoor track. Last year in cross country, she swept the honors at the conference and state meets before taking on the best in the country. DeBalsi placed third at the Northeast regional before finishing second at cross country nationals in San Diego last December to earn All-American status.
Before DeBalsi gets a shot at another national title, she's hoping to bring out the best in her teammates as the group seeks FCIAC, Class LL and State Open championships.
"Hannah makes it clear she's not satisfied with being able to have success on the local or state level," head coach Amanda Morgan said. "Hopefully that can inspire our runners on our team to look beyond our small running community here."
Senior captain Erica Hefnawy took a massive leap forward as a junior and provides the Wreckers with a formidable one-two punch. Hefnawy finished fourth at the Class LL meet and 11th at the State Open -- both at Manchester's Wickham Park.
"I think Erica's goal is to finish as high up as she possibly can," Morgan said. "The more points we can get up front the more it can help us as a team."
Elizabeth French will serve as co-captain for the Wreckers. Staples boasts a strong crop of juniors that will be crucial to the team scoring enough points to earn a possible state title. Katherine Smith, Angie Parmar, Erin Munley and Susie Martin (sophomore) will all be in the all-important pack.
Tolland remain the clear favorites in the state with its depth, but Morgan is hoping to take a strong run at top spot.
"It's definitely a goal," Morgan said. "Tolland is so strong with its pack. They don't have a frontrunner like we do with Hannah, but it's hard to compete with seven girls that run within 20 seconds of each other. I saw them at running camp this summer and I know they're in good shape. "
While the girls are expected to comfortably win the FCIAC with DeBalsi and Hefnawy leading the charge, the boys face a more daunting task. Defending Class LL and State Open champion Ridgefield is ranked 12th in the preseason national poll released by Dyestat.
Staples, which is ranked second in the state, will vie with Danbury and Darien to attempt to dethrone Ridgefield. Seniors Oliver Hickson, Jake Berman and Luis Cruz will be captains this year. Hickson is the highest returning finisher from last seasons meets -- sixth at Class LL, 13th at the State Open.
"All of them have big meet experience and solid performances to back them up," said head coach Laddie Lawrence, now entering his 43rd season leading the cross country program. "They are all great hard workers; so far they've showed really good leadership, picked up the reins and leading everyone in a positive way."
The Wreckers did lose top performer Peter Elkind but Lawrence remains confident his group can take a shot at the top teams. Jake Atlas, Liam Foster, Ben Foster, James Lewis and Brandon Harrington are all in the mix to perform well, as well as Dan Landy, who won the 19-and-under age group at the Road Runners Summer Series.
"We've got nine or 10 high-quality guys to build from," Lawrence said. "We had 82 kids come out for the team; we have a few newcomers including a few freshman that look promising. We're hoping several of them go to New Englands, and if we do well enough we'd like to take a shot at nationals. Once everyone is healthy by midseason we'll have a better idea."
Both squads open up Sept. 9 at home.