Far left: Kelly Labanara; near left: Steven LaFlamme (Photos by Liam Murphy and Nikki Chambers).
WILLIMANTIC, Conn. - Second-year head cross country coach Kathy Manizza knows that there's a lot of work ahead as her young men's and women's teams develop into post-season shape, but she was encouraged after the teams completed their only home race of the season this past Saturday at Mansfield Hollow State Park.
Featuring six newcomers among the eight Eastern competitors, the women's team eased past Bridgewater State University by 18 points, and downed the University of Saint Joseph (CT) by 50 points over the challenging 5,000 meter layout Saturday morning.
Similarly young with seven first-year runners among the nine which finished the 4.2 mile course, the men's team ran a strong second to Bridgewater State in the dual meet, falling a point shy when No. 3 Bears' runner Ben Dinobile was able to hold off the charge of Eastern's top runner, sophomore transfer Taylor Flynn (Old Saybrook), at the finish line.
Both Eastern teams ran for the second straight week without a key runner. For the men, it was No. 1 runner Lee Cattanach (New London), a junior, and for the women, it was senior Katie France (Portland). One of two three-year letterwinners on the team, France ran 1-2 a year ago but has been rehabilitating a stress fracture since the summer.
Saturday, the Eastern men were unable to break up Bridgewater's top three of individual winner Dallas O'Brien, Mark Waller and Ben Dinobile, but filled in the next seven spots. Needing to outrun Dinobile for Eastern to pull out the win, Flynn came out of the final loop hard but could not quite overtake his competitor over the final stretch of just under 200 meters.
"Our men really did run well," noted Manizza, "certainly gave it a really solid effort, and supported each other as a team. That's what was really impressive. They ran as a pack throughout the race and definitely were pushing each other, and that was what was exciting."
Scoring points for Eastern behind Flynn - who transferred from Southern Connecticut State University this fall -- were freshmen Dustin Plourde (Norwich) and Joe Rainville (Montville), sophomore Steven LaFlamme (Moosup), and first-year junior track competitor Michael Dolde (East Hampton).
As a bonus, Eastern's top four men ran as a unit, with only 37 seconds separating Flynn from LaFlamme at the tape.
"Taylor gave 100 percent effort once he turned out of the woods," praised Manizza. "He tried to outkick the Bridgewater kid, but our top guys just waited too long (to overcome Bridgewater's first three). They knew that they needed to break up those top three by making their move a little earlier. It's impossible to win a cross country race if the other school gets 1-2-3."
Manizza points to LaFlamme as one of the team's most improved runners, citing his exhaustive training regimen this past summer.
Led by junior Kelly Labanara (Chaplin) and freshman Sofia Amaral (New Milford), the five scoring runners for the women's team all finished among the first seven runners.
Labanara, named as the Little East Conference's Runner-of-the-Week Monday for her effort in the race, led the Warriors for the second straight race this season, with only nine seconds separating her from individual winner Danielle Poto of Bridgewater.
Amaral was third overall - 24 seconds behind Labanara - with senior three-year letterwinner Alexa Palasky (Griswold) fourth overall, freshman Mariah McPhee (Bristol) sixth and freshman Julie Trifone (Cheshire) rounding out Eastern's five scorers with a seventh-place overall showing.
Behind Labanara and Amaral, Palasky, McPhee and Trifone ran as a group, with only 39 seconds between the three.
"Our women ran as a pack, and they did a great job of pushing each other. Mariah is getting stronger and stronger every time out," said Manizza of McPhee, who was unable to put in maximum mileage this summer due to academic commitments. "I think that she will eventually catch up to Sofia (Amaral), then we'll really have a strong top three, and Alexa (Palasky) and Julie (Trifone) will be right there, as well. It's exciting that we have such a strong top seven."
Although Poto took the coveted top spot, her teammates could not submit similar results. All five Eastern scorers, as well as Kaneen Gomez-Hixson of Saint Joseph, crossed the tape before Natalya Riberdy managed to record an eight-place finish as Bridgewater's second finisher.
While injuries have sidelined Cattanach and France, Plourde has also been nursing stress fractures which sidelined during his senior season at Norwich Free Academy. He mixes an alternative running program with pool workouts this fall as he rehabs his injury. For the women, senior Wendy Bouton (Stratford), junior Alexandra Maciolek (Ellington) and freshman Ashley Skolozdra (Mount Laurel, NJ) all sat out Saturday's competition with injuries, according to Manizza.
Eastern closes out the month of September Saturday at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Invitational.
Run over 4.2 miles
Bridgewater State U. 29, Eastern Conn. 30
1. Dallas O'Brien (B) 24:05; 2. Mark Waller (B) 24:50; 3. Ben Dinobile (B) 25:04; 4. Taylor Flynn € 25:08; 5. Dustin Plourde € 25:21; 6. Joe Rainville € 25:32; 7. Steven LaFlamme € 25:45; 8. Michael Dolde € 26:16; 9. Chris Burkle € 26:18; 10. Mike Underwood € 26:26; 11. Andrew Single (B) 26:30; 12. Evan Glaude € 27:03; 13. John Whittemore (B) 27:22; 14. Chris Armstrong € 27:41; 15. Mike Gillis (B) 29:21.
Run over 5,000 meters
Eastern Conn. 23, Bridgewater State U. 41, U. of Saint Joseph (CT) 73
1. Danielle Poto (B) 20:27; 2. Kelly Labanara € 20:36; 3. Sofia Amaral € 21:00; 4. Kaneen Gomez-Hixson (S) 21:27; 5. 5. Alexa Palasky € 21:34; 6. Mariah McPhee € 21:57; 7. Julie Trifone € 22:13; 8. Natalya Riberdy (B) 22:19; 9. Brittany Reed (B) 22:21; 10. Kelsy Nixon € 22:30; 11. Rachel Ducharme (B) 22:37; 12. Emily Ducharme (B) 22:50; 13. Stephanie Ward-Smith (B) 24:27; 14. Kailynn Violette € 24:34; 15. Amber Trembley (S) 24:57; 16. Joyce Simon (B) 25:05; 17. Rachel Mauthe (S) 25:28; 18. Rachel Mezzoni € 26:25; 19. Anne Pitoniak (S) 26:46; 20. Bridget Saur (S) 27:45; 21. Serena Cochran (S) 37:02; 22. Lovely Jourdan (S) 37:47.
Eastern Conn. 2 3 5 6 7 -- 23
Bridgewater 1 8 9 11 12 -- 41
Saint Joseph, CT 4 15 17 18 19 -- 73