AYER – As is the case with the girls, Gardner High is the team to beat in Mid Wach D cross country this season. But the Panthers are not a team to take likely, boasting a handful of athletes that should have a shot at league all-star status, and the best runner overall in the league, as the Maroon and White gear up to make a hard push for some hardware at Saturday’s league championship meet.
Ayer Shirley recently wrapped up the dual meet season slate, finishing the year with a strong 5-2 record. But one of the blemishes against Maynard, the Panthers were short-staffed due to injury.
Gardner is the team that the Maroon and White will set their sights on at Saturday’s League Championship meet in Lunenburg, as the Wildcats topped the Panthers in the dual-meet finale, and it figures to be a two-team race Saturday, if everything plays out as it’s expected to.
“Both the boys’ and girls’ teams for Gardner are very strong,” Ayer Shirley head coach Chris Donovan said. “(The dual meet) was one that we’d need a perfect day to have it go our way.”
The Panthers have the clear-cut best runner in all of Mid Wach D with freshman Jake Leone boasting perfection in the dual meet slate. Ayer Shirley recently traveled down to Cape Cod for the Twilight Invitational, and Leone entered the freshman meet, and secured the title out of 256 runners. He led the pack the whole way.
Donovan thinks an individual trip for Leone to the all-state championship is certainly in the cards later this year, if Leone continues the strides he’s been making, which would mark a return trip for the freshman sensation.
“(Leone) is really coming into his own,” Donovan said. “He hasn’t lost a meet yet this year, which is pretty exciting heading into a league meet Saturday, because he should be league champion as a freshman, which hasn't happened in a while. It started last spring with him, he flipped that switch and found that next gear.”
“We don’t push the summer training on the middle school kids,” Donovan continued. “But heading into high school I talked to him that if he wanted to be really, really competitive, that it needed to start in the summer, and he clearly bought in. He’s had a great year and we’re hoping to ride this for a few more weeks with him.”
Cole New is a standout 400-meter dash runner in track and field, but he’s been making a strong case for his long-distance skills, typically running second to the line behind Leone.
“We modify a lot of (New’s) workouts towards the shorter sprint type stuff,” Donovan said. “Ultimately he’s never going to be quite as good at cross country as the quarter mile, but he’s had a really solid year and is a consistent No. 2.”
Jack Holden also put in the work with the summer running. Donovan saw a spark in interest this past year, as there’s been a realization that Holden can be a consistent league all-star runner out of the third position for the Panthers.
Holden ran the freshman Twilight Meet as well, finishing 12th overall.
“If (Holden) continues to train the way he does,” Donovan said. “(Leone and Holden) are going to be a dominant 1-2 punch over the next 3-plus years.”
The final scorers in the 4-and-5 spots are two seniors that go neck and neck. Nate Baptista could have a shot at a league all-star spot Saturday if he hits his stride. Cole Heinle-Kleczka won’t probably be too far behind as he uses close friend Baptista as a goal pace.
“(Baptista’s) times have plummeted on our course since last year,” Donovan said. “He’s one of these kids that I wished I had for all four years. (Baptista and Heinle-Kleczka) are very similar, both top notch kids, and I can’t ask for much more.”
Ryan Gill and Johnny McGrath serve as the team’s two displacers. Gill is a junior with the goal of cracking the top 7 coming into the season, which he’s held from the beginning. McGrath, a freshman hockey transplant, demonstrates fearlessness in his work ethic, dropping 2-minutes off his beginning of season mile pace.
“With league meets in the past there would be individuals on other teams that would help you out,” Donovan said. “But it feels like we’re going to be in a two-man race with Gardner. There are just not many individuals that are going to be in that top 10, so we’re likely going to see a lot of Gardner and Ayer Shirley and it could score out like a dual meet. And on paper that doesn’t really favor us, we have two seniors and Gardner has 4 out of the 7, but we’re going to give it a shot, anything can happen on any given day.”