East Hampton cross-country runners (l-r) Shae Thibodeau, Dan Drlik, Ben Fazekas, Alex Urban, and [missing] Savannah Garcia are the programs five seniors this fall. Both the boys and girls teams are coming off runner-up finishes at states last season.
Since Bill Wilkie took over the cross-country programs at East Hampton High School in 1998, the Bellringers have been incredibly consistent.
Both the boys and girls programs have captured multiple conference crowns and have each won a Class SS state championship, with the girls winning in 2008 and the boys winning in 2019.
Wilkie said the key to the program’s continued success is finding student athletes with a passion for running.
“It’s easy to get someone to do the hard work if they really love doing it. We’ve been lucky that for the last 25 years, [running] is the best part of the day for our main core,” added Wilkie. “Those that may not come into the program with that mentality develop that mentality and the rest of it is easy.”
Last fall, both the boys and girls squads placed as the runner-ups at states, each finishing behind only Haddam-Killingworth in overall team points.
Wilkie has plenty of reliable runners back this fall, including junior Aiden Palen who was the first Bellringer boy to cross the finish line at the Class SS meet, placing 12th. Gabe McMillian and Dan Drlik will also return after having top-20 performances at the Class SS meet.
Drlik, a senior, said the key to the team’s success is the healthy competition and camaraderie of the team.
“We’re constantly trying to push each other. Even during races we have people that run side by side,” added Drlik, “During practice we always try to make sure that everyone has at least one running partner. We try to motivate each other and uplift everybody.”
Drlik is one of three senior boys, joining Ben Fazekas and Alex Urban as the team’s most seasoned striders.
Fazekas said that endurance running is often viewed as an individual sport, yet it’s the team concept that creates the best results.
“At the end of the day you have to work together to push each other to be the best that you all can be,” added Fazekas. “Here we have a good team community, which I think is a big part of it because we all are super friendly and we all like being around each other.”
Urban said the particularly challenging hot and humid summer should pay dividends once the temperatures start to dip later in fall.
“It is definitely a dramatic increase because when you are in the heat you will be losing more water and training in really harsh conditions, so when you are in cooler weather you are prepared for the best and it gives you an advantage,” stated Urban.
The girls team graduated Kaylee Gravel, who finished 2nd at the Class SS finals and is now running at Central Connecticut State University, yet they have three of their top five runners from last season returning in Kaitlyn Ireland, Savannah Garcia, and Camryn Sprague.
Garcia and Shae Thibodeau are the two senior girls.
Thibodeau, a three-season runner who also competes during the indoor and outdoor track seasons, said that having a strong support system is the key to maintaining the team’s standards.
“Running is a hard sport. It is what every other sport does for training,” said Thibodeau. “So having other people to keep you going and for motivation even when it’s hot and humid is great.”
Because of the nature of the sport and the size of the school, Wilkie added that they rely on consistency every season from a handful of runners that will lead the way for both teams.
“Generally speaking our strength is the pack of one to five isn't going to have a very big spread. It is going to make us pretty competitive,” said Wilkie, who also coaches track and field at the school.
One of the benefits to coaching in a small town is that Wilkie’s roster has been running alongside each other since middle school and already had a bond once they reached high school level.
“They’ve trained together in the summer and they will hold each other together in races and that is going to be our strength this year,” added Wilkie. “The makeup of this team is a really close-knit group, both personally and physically.”
The veteran coach, who spent time as an assistant track and field coach at Eastern Connecticut State University, added that all of his conference and state title teams have had a team-first mentality.
“Successful teams all had that same common denominator. If you look at the teams that are consistently strong, the focus is as a team,” added Wilkie. “People that aren’t involved in cross-country will never understand that it is a team sport. In appearance it does seem that way, but any winning team has a team approach.”
The Bellringers will compete in a handful of meets this season, including the Portland Invitational on Tuesday, Sept. 13 at YMCA Camp Ingersoll at 3:30 p.m. They will host the Bellringer Invitational on Friday Sept. 30 at EHHS at 3:30 p.m.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin