STRATFORD—Nobody would have blamed Isabella Cola for moving on.
Last fall, as a freshman at Stratford High, the girl who goes by “Izzy” joined the Red Devils’ cross country team. For the next three months, she ran alone as the team’s only female member.
When all was said and done, she could have untied her running shoes, kicked them off and walked away bare-footed to a vastly different future.
Instead, she chose to remain on the path she’s been running down for more than a year.
This fall, Cola is back, now a sophomore, and she’s still alone.
Only she isn’t.
Not at all.
A number of other teams in the South-West Conference ranks have embraced Cola’s efforts on the cross country course, as has Stratford’s boys team and its coaching staff.
“What I really like about cross country is the sport in general,” Cola said before the start of Tuesday’s home meet at the Wooster Middle School. “Regardless if there were other people there, I still wanted to do it. Last year, at meets, the other girls were really supportive and the boys team here is really nice, so I was never alone.”
It is that type of friendship, camaraderie and commitment that has brought Cola back to the course for another season as Stratford’s lone female runner.
“She’s just a tremendous young lady,” Stratford girls coach Bill Ivanko said. “When she puts her mind to something, she can accomplish anything.”
Cola is not out to win a state championship or any other races for that matter.
Honestly, she’s just not at that talent level.
When she finished her first race last year in 35 minutes, the goal Ivanko set for her was modest yet do-able.
Break 30 minutes over a 5-kilometer course.
Cola did just that in the penultimate regular-season meet of the year at Jonathan Law in Milford.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re the fastest, or out there winning races,” Ivanko said. “It matters that you’re out there achieving your goals. I had tears in my eyes because we achieved our goal. I got emotional when she crossed the finish line. I was so happy for her. That’s what it’s all about.”
A few weeks later, during the state class championship meets at Wickham Park in East Hartford—one of the toughest courses in the entire state—Cola did it again.
So, after she returned for another season, Ivanko challenged her even more, raising the bar by lowering the goal time.
“Last year, we wanted to complete the race. This year, we want to compete. I said, ‘Izzy, we’re dropping the L,’” Ivanko said. “We’re going to establish a new goal. This year, the goal is 25 minutes.”
Cola ran her first race of the season in 31 minutes, a time that left Ivanko feeling uneasy.
“This year, I have higher expectations,” he said. “When I first heard 31, I was a little disappointed. Here I am thinking she’s got this whole first year under her belt, but then I thought about it more. Last year, her first meet she was over 35 minutes.”
In fact, in a year, Cola had dropped more than four minutes off her first meet time of the season.
On Tuesday, Cola broke 30 minutes in her only her second meet of the regular season.
So, step by step, she’s striving for her goals just like she did a year ago.
“I didn’t think I could do it last year because I was so slow and could be barely run,” Cola said. “It was a huge accomplishment for me. I feel like I can do (25) this year. I’m not sure when I’ll reach it, but I hope I can by the end of the season.”
And while she might be running alone, she’s hardly alone.
Joel Barlow and New Fairfield have grown especially fond of Stratford’s lone female runner, allowing her to join them in warm-ups and cool-downs—with New Fairfield even inviting her into their pre-race, psyche-up huddle before the starting gun.
“The schools in the SWC are really special,” Ivanko said. “There are schools out there who have accepted her as teammates. They have taken her as if she is theirs. It’s so wonderful to have that kind of sportsmanship within our ranks.”
For the second straight fall season, Izzy Cola might be the lone red singlet out in a large of field of runners, but she’s hardly alone.
And she’s always carrying her newest goal with her, as well.
(Editor’s Note: “On The Sidelines” is an online feature column written by Stratford Sports Scene managing editor John Nash)
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