For Natick junior Grace Connolly, Saturday’s Eastern Mass. Divisional meet at Wrentham Developmental Center is far from uncharted territory.
Just one year ago, she won the race with a time of 17 minutes, 46 seconds — more than a minute faster than second-place Jillian Callahan of Plymouth North. The year before, she placed fifth.
Saturday, the defending Division 1 state champion will be looking to do what she’s become accustomed to doing: winning. But there’s an added incentive as Wrentham will host the All-State meet next Saturday.
“It’s nice to know it’s a course that I’m familiar with. But I still haven’t run [in Wrentham] for a year,” Connolly explained. “I know exactly what the course is going to be like. But it will be a good tune-up for All-States when everyone will be there.”
She’s even narrowed down a target time (17:30), but understands it won’t come easy. In addition to shaving 16 seconds from last year’s time, she’ll have to do so in temperatures just above freezing.
“For me it’s fine to run in the cold, but the wind would be a bummer,” she said. “I’ve been training in the cold, so I’m used to it. I think the most important thing is that I’m staying warm before, and that I’m not cold when I toe the line.”
“For me, I’m just trying to not let it affect me mentally, because I know that will make it a harder race.”
The divisional championship gives Connolly a chance to see where she stands physically as well. Her weeks leading up to states usually aren’t at a race pace, rather a speed just to keep her in shape. But at divisionals, she’ll have one last race to go “all out” in before the state’s most important race of the fall.
“I think coming in for [Saturday], my goal is to just really attack the course,” she said. “Since All-States are there the following weekend, it’s a different dynamic. I’m excited for it, it’ll be a good opportunity just to drop a fast time.”
Connolly has individual goals, naturally. In addition to seeking an individual win, she’s looking to help Natick to an improved finish as a team.
The Redhawks placed ninth last year in the Division 2 race, and it wasn’t enough to qualify them for states. It’s been over a decade since Natick qualified for the state meet, and Connolly has been doing her work to ensure that won’t be the only Redhawk taking the trip to Wrentham next week.
“I think it’s important not to put an immense amount of pressure on them,” Connolly said of her teammates. “I think that it’s really important that they see that, and not let that overwhelm them. I feel like that adds a whole other level of stress and they won’t perform well. A lot of them are underclassmen, too, or freshmen, and they haven’t really ran cross-country yet, we’re just trying to tell them to give it their all.”Shawn McFarland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.