NORTHFIELD – The Ayer Shirley Regional boys’ cross country team was so close to pulling off their goals Saturday at the state qualifier at Northfield Mountain, but in the end had to settle an inch shy of moving on.
But it wasn’t a day of mourning by any means, as two top runners qualified as individuals for the Division 3 State Championship which will be held Saturday at Devens.
Ayer Shirley finished in 8th place with 252 points and a cumulative time of 1:38:33.23, where the top 7 teams secured automatic spots of advancing. Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion School took that last spot with a narrow 248 points, and the Panthers came up short in the wildcard based on remaining best times.
“It was a good day overall,” Ayer Shirley Regional boys’ cross country head coach Chris Donovan said. “To come up 4 points short is tough because you start looking at who specifically could’ve passed a few people, and the kids do the same thing, and start pointing fingers not at each other but themselves, which is tough because I thought they ran really hard. It was disappointing to not keep going but I couldn't question anybody’s effort.
Freshman sensation Jake Leone cruised to an impressive 11th place showing on the 5K mountainous course in Western Mass, posting a stellar 17 minute 24.93 second time, in a highly competitive field. The performance was good enough to snag a trip to state’s with relative ease.
“This has been coming all season long (for Leone),” Donovan said. “I honestly didn’t think he’d be as high as he was. I think he surpassed where I thought he’d be at this point. That was his personal best 5K on a really, really tough course. I couldn’t have asked for a better day out of him.”
The goal for Leone was breaking 18 minutes which would’ve been a stellar performance enough, but he exceeded his goal by over half a minute.
“To get to run at Fort Devens (this Saturday) is exciting,” Donovan said. “One, we’re right around the corner, but two, it’s a really flat course, that Eastern Mass style course. He’s seeded 25th based on where everybody ran, but I think he can move up from there. He’s really confident and had a couple of really good workouts this week, so I think he’ll be ready.”
Leone won’t be racing in his backyard this weekend alone, as teammate and D1 400-meter dash prospect Cole New showed his versatility, snagging the 40th spot with a 19:15.31, which was good enough to secure a ticket to advance as well.
“That was a really good run for (New),” Donovan said. “We talked earlier in the year that he’s a 400 runner doing this for training. For him to buy-in and run more than a respectable time on literally a mountain I was pretty proud of him for that.”
Freshman Jack Holden was the third Panther to cross the line, in 53rd place with a 19:56.48. Senior Nathan Baptista wasn’t far away finishing 66th with a 20:19.93.
Cole Heinle-Kleczka rounded out the Panther scoring in 92nd place, concluding his career in style with a 21:36.58.
“I think (Baptista and Heinle-Kleczka) were most disappointed,” Donovan said. “As seniors you hope you’re going to have one more week, one more run with the guys, but then all of sudden in a blink of an eye, that’s it. I think they wanted it to last one more week, but looking at what they ran I couldn’t have asked for much more. They emptied the tank, and unfortunately, they didn’t have quite enough to get to that state meet as a team.”
Freshman Johnny McGrath (23:03.06) in 119th place and junior Ryan Gill (24:03.17) in 138th place served as displacers.