When Tewksbury’s Rachel Sessa joined the cross-country program as a junior last fall, she brought along credentials unlike those of any newcomer. She came in as the defending outdoor state champion in the 1-mile, along with a handful of other accolades.
So when her coach Peter Molloy told her to embrace her failures when she was unable to complete races and workouts last season, the talented distance runner found herself in uncharted territory.
“Coming off the sophomore year I had, I had really high expectations,” Sessa said. “I had wanted to switch over to cross-country for a while. There was a lot going on, and it played out in the races. I think at the end of cross season last year, I took a lot away and had a lot to learn from. It’s a good reminder to take away what I learned from last year and apply it to this year.”
This year however, there have been far fewer bumps in the road for Sessa. She’s helped lead Tewksbury to the No. 1 spot in the MSTCA rankings. In addition to dual-meet wins, she finished second at the Merrimack Valley championship and helped the Redmen to a league title.
According to Molloy, the turnaround started with Sessa’s perseverance and hard work.
“I think it speaks to Rachel’s true talent, her resiliency,” Molloy said. “She has just shown a tremendous ability to grow off of her struggles.”
Molloy added that internal pressure continued to build. Each time Sessa struggled, she put more pressure on herself to improve her next time out on the course. It had nothing to do with her physical ability. She had to change her mind-set.
“One thing I learned is that a bad day doesn’t equal a bad season,” she said. “Even with the failures, I couldn’t completely change everything. Just keep moving forward with what you’re doing. The continued work over time will lead you to where you want to go. It’s got to be a gradual process. If you overdo it, you might get hurt. If you underdo it, you might not be where you want to be.”
While she explained that not much has changed for her from junior year to senior year, her preparation has.
“It’s still about how I can be the best runner, the best version of myself. It’s about running my own race, and figuring out how to be tough and strong in the moment. You’ll never be ready going into a race, even if you’re like, ‘Yeah I’m feeling good.’ It’s just how to respond in that moment.”
Sessa ran with that mind-set. Now a senior, she’s stepped into an unfamiliar role — a true leadership role. Her sister, Emily, has graduated and is now running at UMass Lowell.
Rachel and Emily shared an unbreakable bond. They were sisters, best friends, and teammates. That attitude carried over to the rest of the Tewksbury runners. As Molloy put it, “Everything is better when the Sessas are around.”
“I think it’s a lot harder,” Sessa said of Emily’s graduation.
She even added that some practices, she’ll run to Lowell just to see her sister.
“She was my go-to, she’s still my best friend. I’ve always been the younger sibling, the underclassman,” she said. “Now I’m the upperclassman and people look up to me.”
Despite little experience in that role, she’s thrived in it, and it’s played a huge role in Tewksbury’s 10-0 season, and the team’s search for a Division 2 state title.
She’s helped make the team feel like a family. She’s found ways to keep all the girls engaged, whether it’s themed dress-up days, sticker wars in the hallways of school, or a game where a baton must be passed among each member of the team as the school day goes along.
“Now, she’s the big sister,” Molloy said. “She’s grown into it so well. She’s come up with these really creative fun and interactive ideas where every kid on the team can participate. To me, that’s like a big sister. She’s really, really embraced the big sister role.”
In addition to finding her way as leader and as a runner, she has decided where she’ll continue her running career — Georgetown. She plans to run both cross-country and track for the Division 1 program.
Going the distance:
■ After finishing second at last year’s Division 2 All-State meet, the Wakefield boys look primed to take the title later this month. Ranked No. 4 in the latest MSTCA coaches poll, the Warriors edged Lexington for the Middlesex League championship this week behind Matt Greatorex (second place, 12:39) and Tommy Lucey (eighth, 12:57). St. John’s Shrewsbury, Wellesley, and Lowell kept hold of their 1-2-3 rankings.
■ New coach, new roster, no problem. The Lowell boys, once again, won the Merrimack Valley championship. The Red Raiders looked as deep as ever, and placed four runners in the top five, led by Nasir Gibson (16:00) and Colin Fitzpatrick (16:02). Lowell may not have any individuals that will be vying for a title, but with a healthy roster, the Red Raiders have the chance to take down anybody at states.
Runners of the Week:
■ Ryan Oosting, Arlington Catholic: The junior has put together one of the best individual seasons in the state, as he won the Middlesex League championship this past weekend with a time of 12:29.70 (2.5 miles).
■ Andrew Mah, Newton North: Mah had arguably his best race of the season, and beat fellow state title hopeful Lucas Aramburu of Brookline for first place in the Bay State championship. Mah ran the 5K in 14:46.
■ Claudio Rocha, Peabody: The junior made it three years in a row that a Rocha has won the Northeast Conference championship, as his brother Marcelo won the previous two years. Claudio ran the 5K in 16:21 minutes.
■ Jason Dolan, Westford: The senior ran 16:17 to place first in the DCL championship this past weekend.
■ Brian Brooks, Nauset: Brooks won the ACL championship in 15:39, and beat Nick Valianti (Marshfield) by nine seconds.Shawn McFarland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.