MERIDEN — When it came to cross country this fall, times went down. Way down.
So the All-Record-Journal bar went up. Way up.
Our area all-star team went from 19 runners in 2018 to 11 in 2019, with some well-deserving Honorable Mentions also in the mix.
We merely followed the law of the game. At the end of the line, it’s all about time — specifically, the times turned in at Wickham Park in the CIAC state championship meets. You either hit the mark — sub-18 minutes for the boys, sub-20:20 for the girls — or you didn’t.
That said, our team may be smaller, but it is deeper. A year ago, Brendan Mellitt of Cheshire was the only area runner to reach the State Open. He had company this fall. Six other locals and two whole teams — the Southington boys and girls — qualified.
And, this year, Mellitt pushed his own envelope. He made it to the New England Championships.
So did two others. Who were they? Settle in, find a good pace and let’s take it wire to wire.Southington
For anyone who follows the sport, the question posed above is no mystery. Southington sophomore Jackie Izzo and junior teammate Grace Michaud were the area’s top two female runners.
They joined Mellitt at the New England Championship after finishing in the Top 10 in Class LL (Izzo fourth in 19:22, Michaud 10th in 19:45) and in the Top 25 at the State Open (Izzo 22nd in 19:49, Michaud 25th in 19:59).
Izzo mustered her best performance at the New England Championship. Already the Southington record-holder for fastest girls time at Wickham Park and fastest girls’ 5K time overall, Izzo combined them into one neat package with a time of 19:03.
With both Southington teams qualifying for the State Open, Izzo and Michaud were just the tip of Big Blue iceberg. In all, five Southington runners made All-RJ and three others were Honorable Mention.
The leading Southington boy was Matthew Penna. The senior was the only other runner to join Mellitt below 17 minutes at Wickham Park and he did it in three consecutive meets: Central Connecticut Conference (16:41), Class LL (16:57) and State Open (16:58).
The 16:41 placed Penna eighth in the hyper-competitive CCC West Division that furnished State Open champ Gavin Sherry of Conard. The 16:41 was also the third-fastest time ever posted by a Southington runner at Wickham Park.
Penna is legit. He is going on to run at Division I Iona College.
Not far behind Penna was fellow senior Lucca Riccio. Like Penna and Izzo, Riccio made All-RJ for a second straight year. Riccio ran a 17:03 in the Class LL meet and a 17:09 in the State Open.
While the seniors Penna and Riccio set the Southington pace, the real eye-opener was freshman Jake Nafis. The area’s de facto rookie of the year, Nafis rose on the radar when he ran a team-best 16:35 to finish fifth at the Wild Safari Invitational at Six Flags in Jackson, N.J.
Come the postseason, Nafis ran a 17:27 at the CCC Championships at Wickham, then trimmed it to 17:20 in the Class LL meet. He finished with a 17:34 at the State Open.
Bonus for Southington coach Dan Dachelet: He’s got not one Nafis, but two. Jake’s twin brother Drew also had a solid freshman season, running a 17:31 at the Class LL meet.
That 17:31, combined with a 17:28 from junior Jackson Landino, rounded out Southington’s card at the Class LL meet and sealed a fourth-place finish in the team standings, which sent the Blue Knights on to the State Open as a unit. For that reason, Drew Nafis and Jackson Landino — who ran 17:36 and 17:40, respectively, at the Open — are All-RJ Honorable Mention.
Likewise Diane Pillsbury for the girls. The junior’s 20:56 in the Class LL race helped the Lady Knights finish sixth as a team and qualify for State Open.Cheshire
We opened our story with Southington because Southington, with its postseason team success, had the most All-RJ runners.
If we go by individual accomplishment, there’s no disputing who stands No. 1.
Brendan Mellitt was the 2018 Record-Journal Cross Country Player of the Year as a junior and (spoiler alert) did nothing to relinquish the crown in 2019.
Mellitt lived in the 16-minute range all season. He opened with a fifth-place 16:08 at the Windham Invitational, set a new Cheshire Park record with a 16:32, lowered it two weeks later to 16:16 and won yet another SCC quad down at the Surf Club in Madison in 16:14.
Mellitt geared up for the postseason with a third-place 16:29 in the seeded race at the Wickham Invitational. After placing second in the SCC Championships in 16:38 at East Shore Park in New Haven, Mellitt returned to Wickham and placed fourth in Class L (16:26), 17th in the State Open (16:36) and 54th in New England (16:44).
Each postseason time was an area-best performance.
Mellitt did get a good push from his teammates, namely Ryan Farrell, who emerged as Cheshire’s No. 2 runner this fall and earned his first spot on the All-RJ team.
Farrell joined Mellitt on the All-SCC First Team by finishing sixth in the conference meet in 17:29. Farrell’s 17:12 in the Class L race was good for 12th place and a spot in the State Open, where the junior wrapped up the season with a 17:33.
Both Cheshire teams had solid seasons. Sophomores Olivia Ferraro and Meghan Georgescu were the top runners for the Lady Rams. Both made All-SCC First Team by placing 11th (Ferraro in 21:46) and 12th (Georgscu in 21:48) at East Shore.
They have been named All-RJ Honorable Mention along with senior Francis Simpatico of the boys team. Simpatico ran an 18:09 in the Class L meet.Sheehan
Some of the best stories of the cross country season came out of the west side of Wallingford, where junior Liz Brown compiled her third straight stellar season and Michael Barberino simply blossomed as a senior.
Steadily coming on strong, Barberino placed third at the Neubauer Invitational in 17:42, then exploded in the annual Sheehan-Lyman Hall meet, running a 16:54 at Wharton Brook to lead the Titans to the town title.
A 17:42 at East Shore put Barberino on the All-SCC Second Team. He added the exclamation point with a 17:21 at Wickham that placed him 14th in Class M.
Brown, meanwhile, was unbeatable in the regular season. Literally: She won every race she was in — three SCC quads (including a course-record 20:39 at Cheshire Park), the Neubauer Invitational, the Sheehan-Lyman Hall meet and the Connecticut River Invitational at Cromwell.
In the postseason, Brown was runner-up in the SCC at 20:23, which returned her to the All-SCC First Team. Brown’s best time of the year, relative to course difficulty, was the 20:17 she ran in the Class M race at Wickham.
That 20:17 was good for ninth place and qualified Brown for her second State Open, where she ran a 20:33.
Brown was a shoo-in for her second All-RJ nod. She was joined in that regard by Ethan Venoit. The senior went under 17 minutes with a 16:56 in the Sheehan-LH meet. He was also second in the Neubauer at 17:31.
Venoit capped his career with a 17:51 in the Class M meet.
Venoit goes out with fellow senior Derrick Arnold, an All-RJ Honorable Mention after making All-SCC Second Team (21st, 17:55 at East Shore). Arnold, who carries a 4.17 GPA, was also his team’s Scholar-Athlete.
Honorable Mention from the girls team is Ariana Amodio. Only a sophomore, Amodio was Sheehan’s No. 2 runner behind Brown and the No. 2 runner in Wallingford. Amodio made All-SCC Second Team placing 24th in 22:16. Her Class M time was 21:44, good for 18th place.Maloney
Reynaldo Torres came oh, so close to making All-RJ last year as a sophomore. This year, there was no question.
Torres got a foot firmly in the door by winning the Neubauer Invitational in 17:08. He iced it by winning the Meriden City Championship with a 17:21 at Hubbard Park.
From there, the junior kept the good times rolling. A 17:37 placed him sixth in the CCC South. He returned to Wickham Park for the state meets and finished 15th in Class L in 17:18.
It was the fifth fastest area time behind Mellitt, Farrell, Penna and Riccio. Cruelly, it was one second off the State Open-qualifying mark of 17:17.
At the end of the season, Torres led Maloney teammates to Bowdoin Park in Wappinger Falls, N.Y. to compete in the Open Division of the Nike Cross Country Northeast Regional. There, Torres ran an 18:12.
Beyond that, there are several other area runners who enjoyed strong seasons who deserve Honorable Mention. Maloney junior Morgan Kicklighter won Meriden’s girls championship for a third straight year.
Junior Jack Murphy was the top runner down at Lyman Hall. He was fourth in the Wallingford meet at Wharton Brook in 17:38.
Murphy’s classmates, the Weir siblings, Aidan and Oliva, also made Honorable Mention. Aidan Weir (18:31) was right behind Murphy (18:27) in the Class MM meet. Olivia Weir, Lyman Hall’s top female runner this fall, was third in the Wallingford meet in 22:00.