Running cross-country for the first time, Lauren Augustyn turned heads with a breakout freshman season for Bishop Feehan last fall. Now a sophomore, she’ll finally check off one surprising milestone: her first away meet.
The Shamrocks never left the friendly confines of their home Highland Park course in Attleboro during the modified 2020 fall season. They hosted each of the Mass. State Track Coaches Association’s three invitational races, plus all of their dual meets, as the state overhauled its schedule to keep things safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This season, some normalcy returns to a cross-country community fragmented by socially-distanced practice pods and wave formats. Perhaps no team is more excited to hit the road than the Shamrocks.
“Highland’s great and everything, but I definitely want to get some times on some other courses, and see what it’s like and have more competition from more teams,” Augustyn said.
She’ll have plenty of opportunities. The MIAA has brought back divisional postseasons (scheduled for Nov. 13) and the All-State meet (Nov. 20 at Wrentham Development Center) after a one-year hiatus. The MSTCA loaded up its calendar as well, with at least one invitational scheduled for nearly every weekend through the end of October. For programs across the state, 2021 feels like a fresh start.
“I think a lot of people are just really excited and happy to be back at it,” coach Bob L’Homme said. Hopefully it just keeps on getting better.”
A gymnast through middle school in Mansfield, Augustyn picked up running during the quarantined summer of 2020 with encouragement from her father, Dan. When the season started, Augustyn quite literally took off; she led Bishop Feehan to a Catholic Central League title, won the league championship meet, and set a PR (19:26.2 5K) while finishing sixth in D1 at the MSTCA Cup.
With a year of proper training, plus some CrossFit-style summer regimens, Augustyn can power Bishop Feehan to contention as part of a terrific trio that includes seniors Anna Boyd and Liz Borah.
“I definitely think that we can make it to All-States, and we have a pretty good shot,” she said. “[Coach L’Homme] is getting me really excited about it, and I think that excitement is going to reflect in our running.”
Augustyn is part of promising youth movement in the region.
At Holliston, sophomore Carmen Luisi — the state’s reigning Gatorade Girls’ Cross-Country Athlete of the Year — headlines a Panther roster of 11 that includes six underclassmen. Coach Jaime Murphy is sky-high on the group’s potential, but she knows they’ll have to learn the pace of a normal calendar.
“It’s so easy to say, ‘I just want to go out and run,’” Murphy said. “Yes, that’s great, but I can’t have you burning out. So we’ve been talking about how to make sure we’re pacing ourselves throughout the season in terms of our workouts, and in terms of what we do so that we’re running our best when it matters the most. And I think they have taken to that — I think they’re all starting to think about it more and they’re more aware of it.”
The influx of young talent, coupled with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, has runners and coaches raring to meet and compete.
“We lived through some historic times,” L’Homme said. “It’s just incredible that we’re here; [I’m] looking forward to getting to some new races and going to some new places to travel, and hopefully everything is going to work out.”
Wellesley returns its two top runners in sophomore Lily Jin and junior Grace Wheelan, who spearheaded a third-place team showing at the MSTCA Cup. Coach Cassie Short believes a longer schedule takes the pressure off her young squad, since the Raiders don’t need to race all-out at every meet.
“I know last year, they felt like they had to kind of rush their fitness a little bit, and start off the season as strong as they would have ended the season,” she said. “Which, in cross-country, that’s not possible. You gain your fitness as the season progresses.”
On the trails
▪ This fall, the MSTCA is back with a complete schedule, leading off with the Frank Kelley Invitational (Sept. 25, Wrentham), followed by the Bay State Invitational (Oct. 2, Wrentham), and the Bob McIntyre Twilight Invitational (Oct. 15, Falmouth). The Ocean State Invitational (Warwick, R.I.) returns on Sept. 25. The Kelley and Bay State invitationals give athletes a chance to run at the site of one of the MIAA’s three divisional meets as well as the All-State meet.
▪ St. John’s Prep, the 2019 D1 champion, is returning four of its top seven runners from the shortened season in 2020.
The Eagles are led by junior Nathan Lopez, who strung together three top performances at Highland Park last season, in the Kelley Invitational (16:07, sixth place), Mooney Invitational (16:03, second), and the MSTCA Cup (15:53, second in D1).
“Besides being a good runner, he is a good runner who is committed to all of his training,” Prep coach John Boyle said. “He did all of his work this summer, as he did all of his work with us last year.”
Senior Charlie Tuttle, ninth in the MSTCA Cup and sixth in the 2-mile at the All-State outdoor meet in June, is back, along with sophomores Paul Lovett and Marcus Bussone.
“The top guys seem to have done their mileage,” said Boyle. “They have done that work, and they are starting off in a good place.”
▪ With large meets set to return, the MIAA is leaving much of the discretion in regards to COVID-19 precautions to the schools.
“To be sensible we are going to encourage the wearing of masks, we do that at practice,” Boyle said. “Once you get to the cross-country course kids do not have to wear masks, but mature teams will try to sort of separate themselves.”
The tournament format for cross-country has not been released yet, but Brookline AD Pete Rittenburg, chair of the MIAA track & field/cross-country committee, said this week that the number of runners at the start of the nine divisional meets (D1, D2, and D3 in East, Central, and West, respectively) will be capped at 200.
Oliver Glass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.