STRATFORD—They began gathering on the grounds of Wooster Middle School about 45 minutes ahead of schedule on a mild and slightly overcast middle fall afternoon.
Cross country runners from Bunnell and Stratford had a four-team meet scheduled over a 3.1-mile mostly flat course on Monday.
Even though Brookfield and Weston were involved in a South-West Conference contest, you could tell that, like in every other sport in this mostly-blue collar city, the focus for the Red Devils and the Bulldogs was on each other.
You could probably fit as least two football fields into the grounds and perhaps even squeeze in a baseball diamond. These kids weren’t interested in those sports, at least not on an October day.
Running and beating their closest rival was all that was on their minds.
“I’ve been working as an educator in this town for quite some time,” said Stratford boys cross country coach Mo Scioletti. “Nothing beats this rivalry. Nothing. What you will find among all of our teams in cross country is, however, a mutual respect for one another.”
Scioletti knows a little bit about competition. He’s been a life-long baseball guy who played well into his 40s in the Bridgeport City League with Stratford High baseball coach Mick Buckmir and one of Buckmir’s best friends, Dave Lancese of Milford.
But his attention on Monday was squarely on his team.
“I’ve got good guys,” he said. “We have three runners, in particular, Elijah Brown, Joshua Kydes and Paul Duncanson. They’ve been the highlight of our season.”
It was Brown who turned in the best time for the Red Devils, finishing sixth overall, at 18:17.
“All summer long I kept watching how Mario (Bunnell runner Mario Oliva) was doing in his training,” Brown said. “I had a great back-and-forth out there with him. I knew he’d be a threat. I guess my final kick is what got me to the finish line well.”
Brown outdistanced Oliva, who was seventh, at 18:18.
Bunnell’s best finisher in the boys race, which was won going away by Brookfield’s Jadon Parris at 16:57, was senior Dennis Johnson, a performer who coach Barb Poisson has watched grow as a runner since the senior entered Bunnell three years ago.
“He keeps maturing not only as a runner but as a person and as a student,” said Poisson, also the boys indoor track coach, an assistant for the outdoor team and a physical education teacher at the school.
“He’s always pushing himself,” Poisson said. “He’s made himself a top-flight runner.”
Poisson and her husband, Ken, have spent years in the town, raising three children. They know a thing or two about how the two schools like to compete against each other.
“It’s always been about the bragging rights,” she said. “But in cross country, it really ends after the meet is over. My kids are so humble. We actually got together several weeks ago on this same field for a game of ultra-frisbee with the Stratford kids.”
Johnson began the race in second, but soon fell back and found his pace.
“It was way too fast for me at the start,” he said. “That kid (Parris) was flying, right from the start. I knew I had to hang back and save myself, or I would’ve probably burned out early.”
Instead, he finished third in 17:46, followed by teammates Oliva (seventh, in 18:18), Jonathan Gulish (14th, in 19:28), Maurice Neri (20th, in 20:33) and Vicenzo Fabrizi (27th, in 20:33).
Following Brown in the Stratford boys lineup was Kydes (ninth, in 19:28), Tyler Ciuto (18th, in 20:09) and Duncanson (21st, in 20:42).
Weston beat both Stratford and Bunnell. They defeated Bunnell, 22-36 and downed Stratford, 18-40.
The Bulldogs won the bragging rights, at least for this year, by beating Stratford, 25-32.
Weston also won the meet by downing Brookfield, 26-31.
There was no team winner between Bunnell and Stratford on the girls side because the Red Devils have only one competitor, sophomore Isabelle Cola. She’s the entire team.
“She has two very strong attributes,” said Stratford girls coach Bill Ivanko. “She’s smart and she’s dedicated to this sport like no one else I’ve ever seen. We’re setting modest goals for her. Last year, it was getting her to complete the course. This year, it’s about getting her to compete.”
Cola finished 17th on Monday at 29:56.
“It was alright, but I know I can do better, Cola said. “I’ve practiced with the boys and that pushes me.”
Cola, a sophomore, ran at Wooster in the middle school program, but only over a 1.8-mile course. Her goal is to get other students at Stratford interested in the sport.
“Most of my friends play other sports,” she said. “But I know there are kids in school, who, if they tried cross country, would probably love it as much as I do.”
One of the top students in her class, Cola is eyeing a future in criminology. She already has her thoughts about attending an Ivy League school, either Yale or Harvard. MIT is also a consideration.
Sophomore Meghan Fenton was Bunnell’s best girls finisher, 10th in 25:23.
“I was super motivated today,” said Fenton, who also does indoor and outdoor track and loves gymnastics. “I had one of my teammates (Kelsey Ponce) on my shoulder for most of the race. We love beating each other. Usually, I win. Today she was determined to finish ahead of me. That’s why I had to sprint to the finish line. I had to beat her.”
Ponce wound up 12th, in 26:19, also getting passed by Madison DeRubis (11th, in 25:27) who nearly caught Fenton.
Girls coach James Stein likes the competitive nature of his team.
“These kids work hard every day,” said Stein, a math teacher at Bunnell. “They are able to turn miles into minutes. With Meghan, she has that internal drive. It’s something a coach can’t teach a kid. They either have it, or they don’t. I have several girls on the team who’re involved in either gymnastics or in dance. They take off right after practice to do other things. I thought I was a busy person.”
Weston captured the team event, beating Bunnell, Stratford and Brookfield.
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