by Jim Flint
THETFORD – Saturday’s state cross country championships drew harriers representing 57 Vermont high schools. The 784 runners converged at Thetford State Park to compete on the fabled Woods Trail course.
When the athletes arrived, dense fog rising up from the Connecticut River enshrouded Thetford. The temperature hovered around the freezing mark. Races started every half hour, beginning with the boys D-III race at 10:30 a.m. The boys D-I and D-II races were followed by the girls state championship races, in the same order of divisions.
Going into the Division III championship race, there was little doubt that the Craftsbury Academy boys would successfully defend their 2019 and 2020 state titles. Four-year head coach Mike Levangie had confidence in his team’s ability, enough so that he pre-purchased state championship shirts for the boys.
The Chargers’ ultimate challenge was to overcome the obstacles of a fall campaign hampered by injuries and illnesses. The state championships marked the first time this year that the Chargers fielded a full complement of seasoned runners.
The ultimate goal was to qualify for the New England Cross Country Championships. In 2021, the Craftsbury Academy boys became the first D-III team in Vermont history to compete at the prestigious event. To make the cut, the Chargers needed to finish among the top six Vermont teams in the compiled results across D-I, D-II, and D-III.
The D-III field was more balanced this year than in 2021, when the Chargers captured seven of the first eight positions in the state championship race.
As the runners toed the starting line, spectators lined both sides of the field, ears tuned for the sound of the gun. The hush was broken by cheers when the runners emerged in a colorful wave out of the fog. Easily spotted with their pink shorts and blue striped shirts, the Craftsbury boys led a V-shaped charge, with Charlie Kehler and Matt Califano at the tip of the spear.
Kehler never wavered. The sophomore standout smoothly sliced through the cold fog. “It felt surreal, like something out of a movie,” said Kehler. “Our whole gang ran together. I could hear Matt behind me. During the last mile, I zoned out the voices.”
Kehler won the race in 17:30. He cut more than a minute off his fourth-place finish time at last year’s state championship. Matt Califano ran a strong second in 17:53. The race was his best ever on the Woods Trail course. He moved up from a fourth-place D-III finish last year.
“Our plan was to go out comfortably for the first kilometer, then pick it up at the bottom of Morty’s Monster,” said Califano. “I went back and forth with John Viens from Richford High School, passing him after the 3k mark.”
Viens ran a gutsy race, placing fourth behind Enzo Delena of Stowe High School. The Richford senior recently recovered from a bad case of COVID-19. He finished just six seconds slower than last year’s third-place finish, when he was the only non-Craftsbury runner in the top eight.
Like Viens, Cormac Leahy also showed tremendous resilience. The Craftsbury senior finished second in the D-III championship race as a freshman. He won the D-III individual title as a sophomore and junior. In his final state championship race, Leahy would need to summon all his mental and physical strength to bounce back from adversity.
After breaking his foot during spring track season, Leahy spent a few months in a boot. He kept fit by bicycling. Running was off limits until later in the fall, when he eased back into a few races to qualify for the state meet. Two weeks ago, he strained a calf muscle. He had run just five miles since then.
To protect his foot, Leahy wore running shoes rather than spikes at the state meet. Running on muscle memory and grit, he hung onto fourth place for most of the race. Brady Sloop of Thetford Academy passed Leahy as they sprinted all-out down the final grassy stretch. Leahy finished seventh in 18:30.
“I had a good race, all things considering,” said Leahy. “I’ll focus now on getting back into good shape.”
“Cormac did all that we asked of him and more,” reflected Coach Levangie.
Alex Califano (18:33) and Alan Moody (18:40) charged in behind Leahy to capture eighth and ninth-place finishes for Craftsbury. Califano improved his time from last year’s 18:49 finish.
Moody, who also struggled with injuries this year, saved his best race for the state meet. The senior improved on his 18:53 finish at last year’s state championships.
Silas Hunt was Craftsbury’s sixth man. Competing in the state meet for the first time, he placed 12th of 90 finishers, in 19:19. “This year I learned how to build mental fortitude and run a race correctly. I knew I could do it if I just kept going,” he said.
Linden Stelma-Leonard ran in the junior varsity Challenge Race at last year’s state championships. This year the senior captain earned a spot on Craftsbury’s seven-man varsity squad.
Stelma-Leonard rose to the occasion with his fastest 5k of the season. His time of 21:13 placed 34th in the D-III race.
The team with the lowest point total wins in cross country. In Division III, the positions of the first four runners for each team count toward their combined score. Runners five, six, and seven can influence the results by displacing runners from other teams.
The Craftsbury Academy boys finished first in D-III with 18 points. Stowe High School placed second with 49 points. Thetford Academy garnered 64 points to place third.
To learn if they qualified for the New England Championships, the Charger boys had to wait for the team scores across the three divisions. The first five runners on a team counted toward a team’s combined score, with runners six and seven available to displace runners from other teams.
“No matter what happens, I’m incredibly proud of you,” said coach Levangie to the Charger boys after their race. “It was a difficult season. We found obstacles where we didn’t know they existed. The fact that we put together what we did is because you busted your butts all year long.”
The Craftsbury Academy runners met their goals at the state meet. The combined division results put the Chargers in fifth place among 33 scoring Vermont teams.
Division I champion St. Johnsbury Academy, with 65 points, was the top team across the three divisions. Champlain Valley Union High School placed second with 75 points, followed by Essex High School (126), D-II champion U-32 High School (148), Craftsbury (165), and Montpelier High School (180).
The next race for the Craftsbury boys is the Meet of Champions on November 5. The Chargers will compete head-to-head against the top teams and individual high school runners in Vermont. The meet is at the Hard’ack Ski Area in St. Albans. The Charger boys will go on to compete in Ponaganset, R.I., at the New England Cross Country Championships on November 12.
Conditioned by their Northeast Kingdom roots, the Chargers are poised to race with the top harriers in northern New England.
“We have a good community, a place where everyone supports each other” said Silas Hunt about the Craftsbury Academy cross country team. “We have fun and are super focused.”