By Matt Williams
---- — Peabody High senior Catarina Rocha did not expect to be all alone coming down the half-mile finishing stretch of the Foot Locker Cross Country Northeast Regional Championship.
With about 200 meters left in the 5K race held at Van Cortlandt Park in Bronx, New York, Rocha realized she was about to become a regional champion. With no competitors in sight, she crossed the finish line in 17:49 with a big, satisfied smile.
“It’s a long finish — you can see if from 800 meters away, and coming down to the end I thought ‘Wow, this is really happening.’,” said Rocha, who punched her ticket to Foot Locker’s national meet in San Diego in two weeks.
The two-time Division 1 Massachusetts champion is heading to Foot Locker’s national finals for the third time. She’s the fifth girl from the Bay State to win the Northeast regional, which has been held every year since 1979.
“Catarina approaches things in a quiet manner and she seldom shows much emotion,” said Joe Rocha, Peabody’s cross country coach and Catarina’s dad. “(Saturday) she was smiling and she showed some emotion. This is a great accomplishment.”
Running against 110 of the best girls in the region was a challenge. Rocha was running at Van Cortlandt for the first time because the last two regionals were held elsewhere during course renovations, and after scouting the course she hoped to move ahead on a small hill around the 2-mile mark.
After sticking with the other leaders as planned, Rocha separated from the pack. Over the last mile, the field couldn’t catch her and she finished 19 seconds ahead of the runner-up.
“I was a little nervous because I wasn’t sure if I moved at the right time, if it was too fast or too slow,” Catarina said. “I felt the pace and I went with that feeling and let all the work we’ve put in take over.”
A year ago, Rocha was third in the Northeast, which includes runners from the New England states plus Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. Though she was an All-American by virtue of a 7th place finish at nationals last year, Rocha felt plenty of butterflies before Saturday’s race.
“This is the one to qualify. When you’re already at nationals, you feel like it’s alright because you already made it,” she said. “Having been to nationals, I really wanted to get there again, so I was pretty nervous for this race.”
Rocha’s coach and father has seen her evolve both physically and mentally since taking up cross country as a sophomore. She trusts herself and her instincts and it’s made a world of difference against elite competition.
“She’s a student of racing now, of running,” Joe said. “She’s a mature runner and she’s mentally prepared. She has the confidence to take the lead like she did (on Saturday).”
The top-10 finishers in New York advance to the national finals, to be held in San Diego on Dec. 8. Rocha said her goal was simply to finish in the top 10, and she knew that against such a talented field winning would be a bonus. Her father was a little bit more optimistic.
“As a coach, I know what she can do and I thought she had a good chance to win, I really did,” said Joe. “Anything can happen, but she’s in great shape, she’s peaking at the right time and she executed the race the way we planned it.”
The goal for Rocha at nationals will be another All-American finish. Having already won a state title both as an individual and as a team, the regional crown was a welcome bonus.
“I did not expect to be first. It felt really good for me and to be able to represent Peabody,” said Catarina. “To have this on top of winning that (team) state title, it makes the season that much better.”