by Jim Flint
THETFORD – Craftsbury Academy’s cross country team arrived at Saturday’s state championships healthy and well rested. The Charger boys were primed to defend their 2020-2022 Vermont D-III state titles. “They’ve done the work and are ready to go,” said fifth-year head coach Mike Levangie.
The D-II girls kicked off the race schedule at 10:30 a.m. The D-III boys race was at 12:30 p.m. By that time, some spots on the Woods Trail course were squishy from the impact of several hundred runners. Temperatures rising into the low 70s posed a rare October heat challenge, slowing the pace of the cold-acclimated runners.
The Charger harriers faced tough competition from up-and-coming rivals, Thetford Academy and Stowe High School. Going into the championship race, the two D-III schools were just ahead of Craftsbury in the state rankings. Thetford held a home course advantage. Stowe’s seven-member varsity team runs as a pack.
Ben Mattern and Brady Sloop, from Thetford Academy, were eager to displace Craftsbury’s Charlie Kehler and Matt Califano, the first and second-place finishers at last year’s championship race. Stowe High School’s top runner, Enzo Delena, was also in the mix. Delena was the third-place finisher at the 2022 state championship race.
Craftsbury’s strategy was to go out quickly enough to get position on the trails, but not so fast as to flame out in the warm conditions. “We talked about Charlie hanging back on Ben Mattern’s heels, then taking the lead cresting Morty’s Monster,” said Coach Levangie.
Due to a rule change by the Vermont Principals Association, the top five runners for each team counted this year in the D-III scoring, versus the top-four scoring format used in prior years. Margins were tighter, with little room for error. Craftsbury looked to place its four veteran runners in the top ten, and get a solid performance from its fifth man, to secure a team victory.
The fifth man, lanky sophomore Soren Stelma-Leonard, competed in his first state championship race. Lenny Stelma-Leonard, Soren’s brother and last year’s team captain, turned out to support Soren and his former Charger teammates. Lenny is a freshman at the University of Vermont. Soren transferred to Craftsbury Academy this fall from North Country Union High School.
The Craftsbury boys moved quickly to the front as they funneled from the wide-field start to the narrower trail entry. When the lead runners came out of the woods, Thetford’s Mattern was right on Kehler’s heels. Matt Califano trailed Sloop by a few paces. Alex Califano was in sixth place. Silas Hunt was a couple of places back, working to hold off Stowe’s Delena and Lake Region’s Xaviar Chapdelaine.
Mattern caught Kehler in the woods, as they ran shoulder to shoulder. Going up Morty’s Monster, Mattern took the lead. He cruised on to victory in 17:51. The Thetford senior’s time was 30 seconds faster than his fifth-place finish at last year’s state championship race. Kehler, a junior, took home runner-up honors in 18 minutes flat.
Thetford’s Sloop moved up from sixth place last year. He finished third in 18:06. Matt Califano was fourth in 18:45, followed by White River Valley’s Lincoln Miller (18:51) and Craftsbury’s Alex Califano (18:54). Thetford’s Sebastian Perdrizet was seventh, in 19:03.
“The race wasn’t what I expected,” said Matt Califano. “I went out too hard with Ben Mattern, then Brady put some distance on me.”
“I didn’t have a race plan,” said Matt’s twin brother Alex Califano. “I was reacting to the race situation and being flexible. Sebastian (from Thetford) passed me and I passed him back.”
Silas Hunt was eighth, in 19:18. Hunt moved up from 12th place at last year’s meet. His time was a second faster this year. “Enzo Delena was my guy to beat,” said Hunt. “I was right behind him the first mile, then passed him. The heat was weird to run in, compared to last year’s cool and damp conditions.”
After the top four Craftsbury runners came in, 20 runners crossed the line before the next finisher with Craftsbury’s pink shorts. After getting off to a fast start, Soren Stelma-Leonard started to fade in the second half of the race. Knowing his team was counting on him, he held on to place 28th of 89 runners. His time of 21:35 was nearly two minutes faster than his effort on the same course at the Woods Trail meet October 7.
Craftsbury first-year runners Theo Alexander (25:16) and Owen McKibben (25:38) placed 60th and 62nd to round out the varsity team. Craftsbury won the state championship with 43 points followed by Thetford with 50 points and Stowe with 55 points.
“We were the little engine that could,” said Craftsbury senior Matt Califano. He and his brother Alex are the sole Craftsbury runners to be part of all four state championship teams. This year was the closest D-III contest of the four years. With three graduating seniors, the challenge will increase next year to defend the title.
In the combined results of D-I, D-II, and D-III, the Charger boys placed tenth among 31 scoring Vermont teams. The top six teams and top 25 individual runners qualified for the New England Championships, to be held in Maine on November 11. Charlie Kehler was the sole Craftsbury runner to make the Vermont team for the New England Championships. Kehler’s time placed 17th of 250 varsity boys in the combined Vermont state meet results.
The next race for the Craftsbury boys is the Meet of Champions on November 4. 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.