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High School cross-country

Needham girls look to crown a perfect season

Needham High’s Margie Cullen (left) and Sarah Armstrong helped lead the Rockets to a 18-42 win over Wellesley Tuesday. Below, Maddi Terry (left) and Courtney Barrett celebrate the win, while coach Cara O’Connell speaks with Sammy Lerner.

photos by Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Needham High’s Margie Cullen (left) and Sarah Armstrong helped lead the Rockets to a 18-42 win over Wellesley Tuesday. Below, Maddi Terry (left) and Courtney Barrett celebrate the win, while coach Cara O’Connell speaks with Sammy Lerner.

Not much has changed for the girls’ cross-country team at Needham High School this fall.

The Rockets put the finishing touch on their second straight undefeated 11-0 regular season with an 18-42 win over Bay State Carey rival Wellesley at the Elm Bank Reservation Tuesday afternoon.

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A pair of sophomores, Margie Cullen — who completed the 2.55-mile course in 15 minutes 20 seconds — and Sarah Armstrong (15:21) paced Needham to its 29th consecutive win, a streak that stretches across two-plus seasons.

Following last year’s perfect run, the Rockets finished second at the Division 2 meet and then third at the all-state championship.

This year’s squad is more talented, and determined to compete against the state’s best. The postseason kicked into gear Saturday with the Bay State Conference meet, followed by the EMass meets on Nov. 9 (Wrentham) and the All-State meet Nov. 16 in Gardner.

In addition to Cullen, who is the reigning Bay State Conference individual champion, and Armstrong, the squad has been bolstered by senior Sammy Lerner, who previously had run track.

Another sophomore, Julianna Donovan , a potential top- three talent who has been hampered by injury, is just now working her way back to full strength.

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“I think she will be one of our top runners, but right now she isn’t,” said coach Cara O’Connell.

The defining moment in the Rockets’ rise came last October, when O’Connell’s crew knocked off perennial power Newton North by a single point.

“It was a big win,” said O’Connell. “The girls were conference champions last year. That was the first time in the history of the program as far as we can find records.”

Cullen added, “We were all pretty psyched before it. I remember in the middle of the race my coach was yelling at me that I had to go, otherwise we wouldn’t win.

“We did . . . it was pretty cool.”

In the five years since O’Connell took charge of the program, the turnaround has been remarkable.

“It has come from having a core group of dedicated athletes who take their training really seriously,” said the coach. “I think [every year] kids try to train a lot harder over the summer gearing [up] for the season. They’re much more prepared and as a result they’ve had much stronger seasons.”

And with success, interest in the program has also increased.

“This year is the biggest team [24 runners] we’ve had in years,” senior cocaptain Rachel Blaustein said. “More and more people have started to hear about it, and hear how great the team is and how good we are. And more and more people are starting to join.”

At area schools,
it’s cool to run

For other programs such as the Lincoln-Sudbury boys and the Lexington boys, participation rates, along with unbeaten runs, remain a constant.

At Lincoln-Sudbury, under the guidance of 40-year mentor Pat McMahon, the Warriors have dominated the Dual County League Large Division while maintaining squads in excess of 60 runners.

Lincoln-Sudbury is 8-0 this year, and 25-0 over the past three seasons, points out McMahon.

“We lost one a few years ago, but before that we were 47-0,” he said.

What has been elusive, however, for the longtime coach, a native of Ireland who was the runner-up in the 1971 Boston Marathon, has been a Division 1 state title.

“The whole year I’ve been saying, ‘I’d rather we lost a dual meet and put up a great showing at states,’ ” senior cocaptain Zach Joachim said.

The DCL title “is sort of secondary. Our main goal going in is . . . we really want to win a state title for coach McMahon because all of us feel like this is a tremendous opportunity to do it.

“I don’t think coach has ever won a state title and for us that is really a tragedy. We think he really deserves one. He’s been coaching for 40 years. He’s a phenomenal coach and we’d all do anything for him.”

Together with Joachim, classmates Josh Kerber, the 2013 MIAA indoor track 1,000-meter champion, and Ben McDonald comprise the Warriors’ top-three performers.

Lincoln-Sudbury’s No. 1 runner, Kerber believes the bond among teammates, their collective training commitment, and shrewd guidance from their coach could prove deciding factors against looming opponents.

“Once in a while [coach McMahon] will bring up a story about when he raced and his strategy,” Kerber said. “Before a race he’ll talk to each kid one-on-one and give them some insights from back in the day when he ran. I think it’s a combination of the coach and the athletes at Lincoln-Sudbury.”

Despite the graduation of Nat Adams , now running at Dartmouth College, the Lexington boys have continued their reign over Middlesex League Liberty Division schools. The program now owns a 20-plus meet win streak.

“We haven’t lost a meet in our league in three years,” said Lexington coach Bill Babcock after his team completed another undefeated season at 6-0.

“And the two years before that I think we lost one. We just seem to get better as the year goes on.”

Unlike last season, when Lexington could depend on a top finish from Adams, the Minutemen have relied on a more team-centric performance philosophy.

“One of the things about this program that has been good this year is the fact that we have a really strong pack up front,” senior cocaptain Ethan Isaacson said. “It’s not just an individual or a group of individuals. It’s a really strong team environment.”

In addition to Isaacson, the Minutemen feature a talented foursome that includes juniors Ben Jacobson and Ben Martell , and sophomore Zach Manickas -Hill .

“It’s about having a lot of solid runners from when you’re a freshman right up through,” explained Jacobson of the program’s enduring success.

“Not just the top-five, but having 10 or 15 great runners who can cycle through. And having that competitive spirit . . . once you get a taste of success everybody wants it. It gets everybody working hard and motivating each other.”

With nearly 50 runners on this year’s team, winning has also helped elevate the popularity of a fall sport often overshadowed by football and soccer, among others.

“I think it’s cool to win and cross-country wins,” Isaacson reasoned, “so I would say it is cool to run cross-country in Lexington.”

It’s a rationale which could also be easily applied in Lincoln-Sudbury and Needham.

Paul Lazdowski can be reached at pmlazdowski@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @plazdow.

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