By Matt Williams
---- — TOPSFIELD — Danvers High junior Catalina Dominick and her teammates wore pink ribbons in their hair and painted their nails with pink accents before Saturday’s Northeastern Conference Cross Country Championships at Bradley Palmer State Park.
Like all their Falcon brother and sisters playing sports this weekend, Danvers was running to remember their fallen math teacher, Colleen Ritzer.
“That’s her favorite color and she was the favorite teacher for a lot of us,” said Dominick. “We said we were running for Ms. Ritzer. All the other school and teams have been really supportive of us, and we really appreciate that.”
Dominick was the girls NEC champion, clearing the 5K course in an outstanding time of 18:20, believed to be the fifth-fastest ever at an NEC league meet. Swampscott’s Matt Mahoney won the boys race in 15:38, while Peabody came out on top of the team standings in both the boys and girls events.
It was the first NEC title in cross country for Dominick, who has a handful of league gold medals in indoor and outdoor track. She looked strong and confident on the chilly fields, opening up a sizable lead around the second mile and never relenting.
“I’m so happy. Last year I ran 19:54 and I was sick before a lot of races,” said Dominick. “This has been a bit of a shock to me. I’ve never felt this good when I run before, so I’m excited to see how much more I can improve.”
Mahoney also didn’t leave much room for drama, pulling away from the field fairly early and running what coach Jeff Bartlett believes is a record for this configuration of the Bradley Palmer 5K. The Big Blue’s ace was third a year ago and improved his time by an eye-popping 52 seconds.
“I was really pushing hard on the hill on that last loop because I knew Drew (Fossa of Peabody, the runner-up) was going to be right there with me,” said Mahoney. “I was hoping to break 15:40, so I’m happy to get in under that. This gives me confidence going into the divisional meets and hopefully all-states.”
A pack of talented girls stayed with Dominick as long as they could, but she ran a calm and even race that paid off.
“I wanted to hang until the top of blueberry hill and see how I felt,” said Dominick. “Since last spring I’ve been pretty good at holding my pace and keeping my splits even, and I ran even mile splits (Saturday). That felt good.”
Marblehead’s Janaya Randall sprinted to the finish to wind up second in 18:53. Then came a rash of runners from Beverly and Peabody that wound up deciding the team portion; Beverly freshman Abby Walsh was third (19:00) and Nicole Demars followed in fourth (19:04).
Tanner captain Samantha Allen was fifth in 19:25, and Lauren Barrett (19:44) and Toni Pagliuca (19:46) came in together at 7-8. Sydney May (10th) and Julia Merchant (13th) gave Peabody five runners in the top 15, and it was enough to edge Beverly’s two top-fives; The Tanners had a team score of 43 to shade Beverly’s 49.
“The girls ran well. I’m very proud of them,” said Peabody coach Joe Rocha. “Sydney and Julia have come along for us all season and they were the keys. The girls had a plan and they executed it, and Sam ran a great race at the front.”
Julianna Wesley placed ninth for Beverly in 19:55. The ability of Walsh and Demars to work together in the lead pack should be a strength for the Panthers heading into the state meets.
“It’s important and having Nicole as the pace-setter is really good. It’s a nice tandem up front,” said Beverly coach Dave Jellerson, whose team won the NEC dual meet title. “This meet’s a great steppingstone because it shows those younger girls the length and the cold. In two weeks, when it’s 300 runners and 30 teams, you’re not overwhelmed as much.”
Marblehead was third with 51 points with Lily Roberts (6th, 19:28), Sarah Oliver (11th) and Paige Ferrucci (12th) all finished in the top 15. Danvers was fourth with top-25 finishes by Jessica Driscoll and Alison Barker in addition to Dominick, and Swampscott was fifth led by Isabella Kornitsky (21st).
In the boys race, Peabody had six of the top 11 runners to outpace Marblehead with 32 points to the Magicians’ 55. Fossa’s time of 16:08 was good for second, and cousins Ben Braz (a senior) and Marcelo Rocha (a freshman) came in together in 6-7. Alex Greco and Riley Dowd were ninth and 10th, and Richie Fournier was 11th.
The mental chess game, and the exertion of going all out against each other, should help both Mahoney and Fossa springboard towards their respective state meets in two weeks. One of the unique things about a conference championship race is that runners are still training with the aim of being at their fastest for the state meet.
“Matt’s a smart runner and ran significantly fast than last year,” said Bartlett. “Most of our guys and girls ran faster than they did last year, and that’s exciting. We’re getting to the championship part of the season and that’s where the fun happens.”
“No one’s peaking, but we’re on our way up,” said Fossa.
Marblehead’s A.J. Ernst (3rd, 16:33) and Chris Rodts (7th, 16:42) paced their team to second place. Conrad Rousseau, Adam Linksy, Nick Carr and Jared Kokinos were also in the top 20.
Beverly’s Campbell Wood ran a very strong race to finish eighth in 16:44 and the Danvers boys were paced by James Bailey in 13th (17:14). Noah Conti (22nd) and Robert McLaughlin (25th) were the Big Blue’s top harriers behind Mahoney.