The race started off a bit overcast, with the sunlight increasing its rays through the clouds, a change that reflects the development of the Fairfield University men’s and women’s cross country programs.
The men defended their championship title by winning the Father Leeber Invitational, an annual race hosted by Fairfield, by topping eight other teams. The women’s squad also took home a plaque, by finishing third overall for the second year in a row.
“It felt good,” said freshmen Connor Kelley, who finished first overall. “There’s a lot of good teams out there…it felt good to go out there as a team and take the victory on our home course.”
It’s been a steady uphill climb for both varsity groups. Just four years ago, there were many dreary days in the program. Both teams had just finished ninth in the ten school Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and their goal was just to improve.
Now, they have moved up at least four spots in the conference since 2007 and there seemed to be a faint light over the program that gets more and more noticeable every season.
“Every year since we’ve started, this program has gotten better and better and better and it’s being led by the recruits who are freshmen and sophomores,” second overall finisher Howie Rosas said.
The underclassmen showed flashes of their potential. The men’s top two finishers consisted of a freshmen and a sophomore. Rookie Connor Kelley became the first Stag to win the event in over ten years.
“Connor Kelley has been out of this world,” said captain Steve Flanagan.
“He’s showing so far at the college level he could be an elite runner. If he keeps training and stays healthy, he’s going to be top notch.”
The women’s future is also glowing. Two first year players came in the top 10 overall in Maureen Crimmins and Danielle Renzi.
“We knew they were going to do big things today. They didn’t let us down,” said senior captain Kristen Golen.
Having such a young and talented team, it is essential that leadership of the squad shines.
Fifth year head coach John Sagnelli, who has seen this program develop over his tenure, has been delighted in how his captains of led the group.
“I can’t say enough about them [captains Steve Flanagan and Matt Brunelle]…They are sensational. They are great people. They are great leaders and they run hard.”
“They truly care about the team,” Kelley said. “It rubs off on you as a freshmen to know that you have a team that you know is so good… and by working hard you can get to where you want to be.”
Not too long ago, it would have been hard to believe that the cross country teams could have been destined to become in the top three in the conference. Now they have bigger dreams on the horizon.
“We want Marist. We want second in the MAAC,” said Kelley.
The Red Foxes have been ranked number 2 for the last few years with Iona becoming a national powerhouse, finishing 2010 8th in the country.
For the men, the last three years has seen a once bleak team shine lighter each and every season. 2011 could be their big push and allow a squad that finished second-to-last in the conference in 2008 sprinting to number 2.
Winning the Leeber Invitational was only the first step on this marathon. As Kelley put it, “This is only the beginning, they’re brighter days ahead.”