When Lexi Casey, Jessica Gendreau, and Makenna Hunt take their place on the starting line before a race, the three sometimes receive a few cockeyed looks from their foes.
The trio of Tyngsborough middle schoolers, each 13, compete with varsity athletes who are a head taller and a handful of years older on a regular basis. And they often beat them easily.
“When you’re at the start it looks scary, because everybody’s so tall and they all look so intimidating,” admitted Casey, who is 4 feet, 10 inches tall.
“But then you start and it’s all fine.”
“They think little of us,” said the 5-foot-1 Hunt of competitors. “They underestimate us because of our height and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, those girls are just in like seventh grade,’ while they’re seniors in high school . . . and then we go out and beat them in a race.”
In last year’s Central Massachusetts Division 2 meet at Gardner Country Club, Gendreau, Casey, and Hunt finished ninth, 12th, and 16th respectively, in the 168-person field. In the same race, 10th-grader Kerri Keohane and eighth-grader Jaylan Fraser-Mines finished first and seventh, as Tyngsborough carted home its second straight district title.
The three rising eighth-graders will have the opportunity this fall to hoist their third divisional trophy before they have reached high school.
“The funny thing is that they never seem nervous at all; they’re just all business,” said coach Keith O’Brien, who was their history teacher last year at Tyngsborough Middle School. “They have that kind of focus and competitive nature that’s unbelievable.
“I would imagine if I was in seventh grade it would be kind of a difficult scenario, but they’ve really taken well to it,” he added.
The three have been best friends since first grade and have always been involved in athletics together, including soccer, basketball, and lacrosse. But they wanted to try something new when they entered the sixth grade.
Casey has always been an active runner, participating with family members in local runs since she was 7. Her sister Hailey, now a junior, was on the high school’s cross-country team. So the girls agreed to try out the sport.
Each admits that at first, the workload was intense, difficult, and taxing on their bodies, but they have been working consistently to improve.
“I guess in sixth grade I wasn’t fully mentally ready for what I was going into, because I didn’t really know what to do,” said the 5-foot-3 Gendreau, who says running is much more of a mental sport than people realize.
“When I got a handle of it in seventh grade, I knew what I was doing and I knew how to pace myself, so I got better.”
They all got better, shaving off about two minutes of their 5-kilometer race times in the span of one year.
And they improve together at the same pace, finishing most races just a few seconds apart.
Gendreau, whose personal best in the 5K is 19:26, believes that in running together, they are able to push one another throughout the race and perform to their fullest capabilities.
“We definitely help and encourage each other,” she said. “If one is hurting or whatever, we’re like ‘Come on, you can do it.’ ”
According to Hunt, the three don’t just stay together to comfort one other and finish as a group. She believes that their abilities are so similar, they never finish too far apart.
“I think because we’ve all been doing the same training and we’re doing all the same stuff together, it’s put us pretty much all at the same speed,” said Hunt, whose personal best 5K is 20:30.
Their training has been a bit different than the rest of the squad.
Since the three are so young and still developing physically and mentally, O’Brien does not want them to burn out, so they have a lighter training program than the older runners.
“It’s great to have those kind of kids, but you’ve got to watch them,” said O’Brien, entering his 13th year as the Tigers’ coach. “They’re really good. But then again, they’re just seventh graders, so you’ve got to be a little careful and don’t expect them to run the same amount.”
Its a strategy that worked well with Keohane, who joined the team as an eighth grader in 2010 and, now, as a junior, is one of the top runners in the state.
The 5-foot-9 distance runner, who also excels in track, believes that the trio are far better than she was at their age. She thinks their potential is through the roof.
“I couldn’t imagine running at the varsity level as a sixth grader like they did,” said Keohane, who in the spring won the CMass title in the mile and placed second in the Division 2 All-State meet. “I just don’t understand how they can run so fast with such short legs.”
She added: “They all have so much potential and I can’t wait to see what they turn into, because they all are so amazing for their age.”
Andrea Park, a 2008 Tyngsborough High grad who was a two-time team MVP under O’Brien, has been assisting with their training.
The 23-year-old Park has stayed close with the team, particularly Casey (personal best time, 19:46), Hunt, and Gendreau, who says she “loves running so much” because of their mentor’s influence.
“They bring a lot of good spirit to the table and I think that’s because they have such a positive attitude, which is what helps them get through their workouts in practices and races,” said Park, who now works for New Balance and will not have as much free time to spend with the team.
“They show up every day with a smile, so not only do they boost morale for just the three of them, but also for the whole team.”
This fall, the three hope not only to win their third straight CMass, but also make a run at the Division 2 All-State meet.
In last fall’s meet, Gendreau, Casey, and Hunt each finished in the top 50 (out of 178 runners).
Keohane and Fraser-Mines finished third and fourth respectively, and the team placed second behind Bishop Feehan.
This year, Tyngsborough is ranked No. 1 in the Massachusetts State Track Coaches Association preseason poll for small schools.
Of its 13 members from last season, only one, Stephani D’Annolfo, graduated in the spring, and nine of the 13 were middle schoolers last year, making it a team that looks to be in the running for several years to come.