BEST OF THE BUNCH: They were the best in their field ... and on the track, and on the course



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MERIDEN — We’re on the clock here.

And if there’s anything we’ve learned after 30-some-odd years in the business, the clock never stops.

Even now, as we roll out the finalists for Record-Journal Cross Country and Track & Field Athletes of the Year, the area’s best are down in Philadelphia, competing in the New Balance Outdoor Nationals.

The show does not stop. Round and round goes the carousel. We don’t so much saddle up our finalists as proffer them to the camera, smiling and waving with each revolution.

■1st lap: Jackie Izzo, Southington senior.

Bound for UConn, our 2019 Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year is again a finalist after a 2021 season that saw her return to the New England Championships. Izzo departs Southington holding individual school records in the 5K (17:53) and the 1600 (5:01.35).

■2nd lap: Jessica Lombardo, Southington sophomore.

Izzo’s heir apparent placed 12th in the CCC West, which made her All-Conference. Lombardo was 18th in Class LL, which advanced her to the State Open, where she logged a 20:06.

■3rd lap: Alexa Ciccone, Cheshire sophomore.

This rookie stole the show in 2021. In her first year of cross country, Ciccone set two course records, including at Cheshire Park, won the SCC Championship, was named SCC Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year, placed second in Class L and fifth at the State Open. That sent her to the New England Championships, where she was 29th.

■4th lap: Jake and Drew Nafis, Southington juniors.

Jake made the All-RJ Cross Country Team for a third straight year after running a 17:09 at the State Open. On the same Wickham Park course, he made All-CCC West in 17:22.

Drew joined his twin borther on the All-RJ Team by pretty much running step for step with him at the championship meets. Drew made All-CCC West in 17:41 in conference competition and signed off with a 17:29 at the State Open.

■5th lap: Tyler Caron, Cheshire sophomore.

There was Brendan Mellitt; there was Ryan Farrell. Now there is Tyler Caron.

Following his checkered Cheshire predecessors, Caron made All-SCC First Team in cross country with a 10th-place finish at East Shore, then made All-State Class L with an 8th-place finish at Wickham. At the State Open, Caron lowered his time to 16:59. It was the area’s best.

■6th lap: Colin Brown, Cheshire junior.

Simply said, there was no better sprinter in Connecticut this spring. Actually, in New England. Brown swept the 100-meter dash every step of the way, from SCC sectionals through the New England Championships.

Brown consistently was under 11 seconds: 10.94 in Class L, 10.89 at the Open, 10.85 in New England. He was also third in New England in the 200. Brown holds school records in both events, as well as in the indoor 60 and 300.

■7th lap: Jack Freyler, Southington senior.

Hand and arms down, Jack Freyler was the area’s top thrower this spring, and by quite a distance. He won championships in javelin and contended with the best in shot put and discus.

Freyler steadily pushed the envelope. In javelin, he won the CCC West at 165-6 and Class LL at 176-11.

A 180-8 earned Freyler silver at the State Open. His second-place throw of 185-5 at the New England Championships was his personal best.

Freyler was also in the Top 3 in shot put and discus. In shot, he finished second in Class LL at 48-9¼, then landed 50-4¼ placing third at the Open. A throw of 150-7 got Freyler silver in Class LL.

■8th lap: Paul Burkett, Sheehan senior.

The senior captain was a Sheehan cornerstone both indoors and out. Burkett advanced to the New England indoor meet in the 300 meters and as the anchor of the 4x200 relay. He ultimately competed in the Nike Indoor Nationals in the 200. 

This spring, Burkett teamed with Jelan Kollie, Lucas Leon and Kyle Frazier on a 4x100 relay that captured the Class M state crown with a time of 43.79. Burkett was sixth that day in the individual 100. His best time on the season in that event was 10.88.

■9th lap: Bria Benigni & Shaelyn Murphy, Maloney.

Here’s where it starts to get busy. Area girls track enjoyed a banner spring — truly, the best ever. That includes coach Don Askew’s Lady Spartans, who won the CCC South championship.

It was the culmination of a campaign that, for distance runner Bria Benigni and high jumper Shaelyn Murphy, began in the indoor season.

Benigni, a sophomore, brought home Maloney’s first State Open title with victory in the indoor 1000 meters and later won the Emerging Elite Division 1-mile (5:01.60) at the Nike Nationals.

Outdoors this spring, Benigni added to her collection of school records with a 2:25 in the 800 and a 5:04.17 in the 1600.

The 3200 was her marquee event. Lowering her school record in this event, Benigni was second in Class L in 11:17.96, then third at the State Open at 10:53.87.

Murphy, after an indoor season in which she placed second at Class L, State Open and New England, went over the top in spring. The junior set a new school record in clearing 5-6 to win at the R-J Invitational, then broke through the state championship ceiling, first in Class L, then at the State Open.

At both of those meets, Murphy cleared 5-4 to win. She raised the bar to 5-5 placing third at the New England Championships.

■10th lap: Sheehan’s Big 4.

Subdiving Sheehan girls track by any denomination is a disservice to coach Charlie Farley’s crew. Blessed with depth and talent across the board, the Lady Titans were a unified front that went undefeated.

Completely and totally: dual meets, SCC championships, Class M, State Open. The Titans won everything this spring. They were also SCC and Class M champions during the indoor season.

History was made. That’s why the Lady Titans are a finalist for R-J Team of the Year.

That’s still down the road apiece. For now, Sheehan has four finalists for Girls Track Athlete of the Year: Erin Brennan, Amanda Castaldi, Patrice Mansfield and Avery Winters.

In winter, the four seniors formed the 4x200 relay that swept the state meets and won New England and went to Nike Nationals.

In the spring, Brennan branched off and concentrated on jumping after an indoor season that earned her recognition as SCC Indoor Track Athlete of the Year. She was SCC champ in the pole vault and long jump, second in Class M in both events and fourth in both at the State Open.

There was also the triple jump. Brennan went to the Nike Indoor Nationals and won the Emerging Elite Division.

The three other girls continued to run a relay together in the spring, this time with Maya Wresien on the 4x100, and as that relay went, so went the Titans. Castaldi, Mansfield, Winters and Wresien took gold in SCC, Class M, State Open and New England.

Their best time came at the New England meet: 48.08.

That same day, Castaldi rose to the fore individually. She won a New England championship in the 100 high hurdles in 14.78 seconds. (Castaldi had won Class M in 15.53 and dipped to third at the State Open with a 15.90.)

Mansfield and Winters were also individual Class M state champs. 

Mansfield gave the Titans a sweep of hurdles, capturing the 300 in 47.25. Four days later, she placed third at the State Open.

Winters made her mark in the 200 and 400, and as the anchor of both the indoor and outdoor champion relay teams. (She was named SCC Female Outdoor Track Athlete of the Year and MVP of the indoor conference meet for a reason.)

Winters was Class M champion in the 400 (58.69) and second in the 200 (25.68). She placed seventh in both events at the State Open, lowering her time in the 400 to 58.41.

All four Sheehan girls will continue competing in college — Brennan at Quinnipiac, Castaldi at Wheaton, Mansfield and Winters together at SCSU.

Castaldi, though, won’t be running, at least not strictly on a track. She’s going to the Massachusetts school to play soccer.

There’s versatility for you. The seasons never stop.

On Deck: Wrestling



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