East Hampton girls’ track and field captured the program’s first state championship on June 3, edging powerhouse Bloomfield (99.10-97.60) in dramatic fashion to win the Class S title at Willow Brook Park in New Britain.
Trailing late in the meet, the Bellringers needed to win the 4x400 relay and have Old Saybrook finish second to leapfrog powerhouse Bloomfield.
All the pieces fell into place as East Hampton’s foursome of Jessica Starr, Kaylee Gravel, Kyla Norton, and Danielle Adams dominated the relay race, winning by nearly five seconds, and Old Saybrook came in second, followed by Bloomfield.
East Hampton’s late heroics ended Bloomfield’s incredible streak of 12 consecutive Class S titles, dating back to 2008.
“Right before the 4x4, the announcer said what the scores were and our coach came up to us and told us that we could win the whole thing,” recalled Starr, “We started off super strong and then we were cheering on Old Saybrook. Everything happened so fast, we knew we won the 4x4 and then we found out for sure we ran the whole race. We were all jumping up and down, it was a great feeling.”
It was the cherry on top on an incredible meet for East Hampton and a record-breaking day for Starr, who broke the Class S state record in the 300-meter hurdles, besting a mark that had been held since 2016.
“I actually had no clue that I was that close to the meet record. Coming into the race, I just wanted to focus on my own race. I was just trying to PR. I couldn’t control if I came in first or second, I just want to keep dropping my time like I had been doing all season,” recalled Starr, who was told after crossing the finish line that she broke the record.
Starr followed up her record-breaking feat by again topping her own personal record the next week in the State Open, running a time of 44.35.
Her times qualified the junior for a trip to The Outdoor Nationals at the University of Oregon.
After discussing it with her parents, Starr decided to take the trip west to experience the best-of-the-best in high school track & field.
“It made me fall in love with track even more,” Starr said of the experience, “Going to New Britain Stadium, I was always getting so nervous before I ran. I knew going to this and taking this opportunity would not only allow me to get noticed by college coaches, but it would also allow me to assess my nerves at that level. I was able to go into the race and feel the nerves that I should have, but also know in that back of my mind that this is going to help and next year it will make those races feel like just another race.”
It was Starr’s first time on the West Coast and she was in awe as soon as she landed.
“It was insane. The first day we got into Eugene we went to the campus, and we were walking around Hayward Stadium. It was beautiful. Knowing that the NCAA and Olympic trials were held there made it a great experience because I was running where the best athletes in the world had just ran,” recalled Starr, “As a whole, it was such an amazing opportunity. It made me feel a lot more motivated and feel like this is where I should be.”
Along with being a new experience, it was also a new challenge for Starr. She trained all year to run the 300 meters, yet at Nationals they run 400 meters.
Prior to Oregon she had never run the 400m hurdles competitively and had less than two weeks of preparation with her high school coach, William Wilkie, and Frank Quido from Break Out Athlete in North Branford.
“It was definitely a different race,” described Starr, who is used to taking on new challenges.
She grew up doing gymnastics until the eighth grade before switching to running and track in high school. The work ethic she acquired in gymnastic, combined with a major growth spurt has allowed her to thrive on the track, particularly the hurdles.
“I was always a motivated kid and I always had to be motivated for gymnastics, that really pushed me into who I am today,” said Starr, who would train over 25 hours per week in gymnastics, “I can go to the track and stay there for an extra hour because I know I need more work. I’ll do extra and I think that all comes from gymnastics.”
Starr was part of an amazing group of hurdlers at East Hampton. Even more amazing is that East Hampton lost their hurdling coach prior to the season.
“We had to learn how to improve our steps and our technique. It really came down to the three of us coaching each other,” recalled Starr.
The hard work paid off as the Bellringers finished 1-2-3 in the 100m hurdles at the Class S meet. Brylee Montanari finished first, Starr second, and Hannah Barrientos third.
In other events, Gravel won the 800-meter run and Adams finished second in both the 800m and 1600m.
In the field, Jordan Murphy placed second in the high jump, while Amber Murphy (pole vault) and Cassandra Zimmerman (triple jump) placed third.
All told, the Bellringers had four first-place finishes, three second-place finishes, and four third-place finishes to wrap up a well-rounded state championship.
Starr said, “We knew coming into this year that we had a great group of girls that had lots of potential, but we had no clue that we could win it all. We have always been super close friends throughout the years, so in practice it is never about competition. We all want to make sure that everyone has the best race that they can.”
Starr, who is part of Student Council and Interact Club, will return for her senior season as East Hampton attempts to repeat as class champions.
But for now, she is relishing being part of the program’s historic title.
“This is the closest group of girls that I have ever been on a team with before. Being at such a small school we all know everything about each other. It creates great relationship, we see each other in the hall every day, we have lunch together, we have study halls together. We have relationships on the track and hang out outside of practice, which helped create such a great bond. I think that is what made the state title win so much better.”
Following her record-breaking 300 hurdles, East Hampton junior Jessica Starr qualified for The Outdoor Nationals in Oregon
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin