The finish line becomes visible. The speed intensifies and a paced run becomes a sprint as the top female runners on the Whitman-Hanson Regional cross-country team accelerate past the line, one by one, the first four to finish the course at a tri-meet against Scituate and host Silver Lake Wednesday afternoon.
Whitman-Hanson is coming off of a superb season. The Panthers had a perfect 8-0 run through the Patriot League, won the EMass Division 3 title, and then captured the first Division 1 championship in program history, cruising past Wachusett Regional and Weymouth on the 5K course at Franklin Park last November.
At the helm of the program since 1994, coach Keith Erwin said that he is overwhelmed by the success of his girls, and continues to be impressed by their improvement.
One of the squad’s top returning runners, Jenny Dimascio-Donahue, decided to pursue theater this fall rather than cross-country after placing 27th (19:44) at the state meet.
But the Panthers have been buoyed by the presence of freshman Sam Coletti, who placed third in Wednesday’s tri-meet with a time of 19:08.
“Sam stepped right in, hard worker,” said Erwin. “We’ve known how good she is for the last few years. She’s run the Hanson Middle School program, so we knew she was coming up. After she destroyed me in the Falmouth Road Race, I knew she was good to go. She’s an awesome kid, and her teammates are good role models for her.”
Coletti has older teammates to motivate her as a student as well as an athlete. The captains, Gianna Cacciatore along with the Baker twins, Abby and Rachael, are the team’s hardest workers, according to Erwin.
“They work harder than anybody I’ve ever coached,” he said. “The girls on the team look up to them, respect them. They get along with everybody whether it’s the very top group of girls on the team or the girls on the very back of the team.”
They are not only accomplished and skilled as runners, they’re also achievers in the classroom. Cacciatore is number one in her class, the presumed valedictorian for graduation next spring. She is also president of the National Honor Society school chapter, a member of the volunteer club, and a former class president still heavily involved in student council.
Cacciatore has no problem balancing all of her extra-curricular activities. “I hate doing nothing,” said Cacciatore. “For me entertaining myself is helping out with a club or running.”
The captains are all planning to run in college. Cacciatore is looking at the University of Pennsylvania, although her dream school is Harvard University. Both of the Bakers have been in contact with the coach at Monmouth, in New Jersey, although Rachael Baker would prefer to stay more local, possibly at Northeastern or Boston University. No matter where they end up, they certainly won’t stop running.
Cacciatore was first on Wednesday, with a 18:48 finish on the 2.95-mile track. She placed 25th overall at the state meet, completing the course in 19:42, 15 seconds behind Abby Baker (15th overall). Rachael Baker finished 19:47 and was 30th.
The girls, who compete on both the indoor and outdoor track teams, kept up a rigorous training routine this summer. Erwin hands out a suggested workout regimen, but the captains took it seriously, running and swimming every day.
A number of the Panthers also attended an overnight camp in New Hampshire, Foss Running Camp, where they stayed for six nights, working on their conditioning every day to prep for the rigorous courses they’ll face in the fall.
Since there is no hilly terrain around Whitman-Hanson for training purposes, Erwin has taken his squad to other areas to prepare the girls for invitational meets that have uphill climbs.
On Tuesday, the Panthers will take on Hingham, their biggest rival in the Patriot League, and its star runner, Julie McConville, who is a good friend of the W-H captains. She placed eighth overall at the Division 2 state meet last year.
“She’s always been wicked good and right with us running,” said Abby Baker.
Typically the two teams face each other in the last meet of the season, often to determine the league champion, but this season, the showdown will come before the end of September.
“They have a really strong team this year, so they have other runners that will be right up there with us,” said Cacciatore.
Whitman-Hanson is off to a 4-0 start, defeating Hanover (15-50) and Middleborough (15-50), followed by a sweep in the tri-meet with Scituate (16-47) and Silver Lake (16-47). Cacciatore, Coletti, and the Bakers have finished in the top four in each meet.
“I feel like we’re more serious this year,” said Rachael Baker. “We know what it takes to win a state championship and we know how to get there.”
The Panthers will compete at the MSTCA Frank Kelley Invitational Saturday in Wrentham. Coletti will run against other freshmen, hoping to secure a personal win before joining the team for the varsity invitational meets throughout the rest of the season. The rest of the girls will compete for a team win, although they will be aiming to set personal-best times.
“It’s an exciting team, talented,” said Erwin. “They know the bull’s eye is on their back, so we try to take one race at a time, and try and be as healthy as we can throughout the season. There is some pressure there, but this is a group of girls that doesn’t seem to be bothered by the pressure.”