DEVENS – Parker Charter Essential School entered the Division 3 State Championship Cross Country meet as the prohibitive favorite, and the Panthers certainly lived up to that billing.
Boasting its best performance in a state championship in school history, Parker Charter secured its third overall state championship title with ease on Saturday in its backyard in Devens.
Parker Charter cruised to victory with a highly dominant 63 points. The runner up Weston, was a sea away with 118 points, followed by Hamilton-Wenham with 140 points. The next closest Central Mass school was Bromfield in fifth place with 190 points.
“We weren’t prepared for any other outcome than how it went down,” Parker Charter Cross Country head coach Ben Benoit said. “We had a great plan for the meet, each kid had their own goal time and place, and one-by-one they nailed what they wanted to do in the race.”
Parker Charter started the race as planned, but as it unraveled, things just kept going as good as it hoped in the race, as an early lead translated into a comfortable state title victory. The last two times the Panthers claimed a state title, there was much uncertainty until the final results were posted, but this go around was a stress-free victory.
“I could see that we were positioned really well,” Benoit said. “The next time I saw them was mid-race and I’m counting the guys and basically, we had 5 or 6 guys right where they needed to be. The other top teams had nobody with more than two guys. I knew for a long part of the race we were in great shape.”
The victory Benoit says was a “dream scenario,” where the race ended the way any coach would love it to.
“It really couldn’t have gone any better,” Benoit said. “The guys just ran the perfect race for themselves. They stayed really connected and our pack time was incredible. We had a plan to use every ounce of energy the last mile.”
The Panthers, realizing that they had pulled off the state title prior to the results being announced, celebrated in the chute, as there was no indecision about the outcome of the meet.
“We knew that we had done it,” Benoit said. “We collected ourselves, staggered back to the team tent, then they had the results, and we were able to see the big differential in the score. I huddled up the guys and just had a nice moment together. Just told them to let it all out, and it was just a raucous celebration at that point.”
Henry Jacobsen was the top performing non-senior in the race, as he reeled in fourth place overall with a 16 minute 15.84 second time on the 5K course.
“(Jacobsen) has seen this competition at the Twilight and Bay State meet, where Bay State they mix up divisions,” Benoit said. “The guys that are beating him are seniors, and he’s a junior. He should be one of the very top guy’s next year, even though he’s already there now. Next year he’ll be a contender to win the state.”
Senior Caleb Hatlevig put an exclamation mark on the end of his career, exceeding expectations and securing sixth place overall with a 16:23.90.
“(Hatlevig’s) goal was seventh and he got sixth,” Benoit said. “He had a really strong middle part of the race. He didn’t have a perfect start, but he had such a really strong middle, that he set himself up for a great race.”
Seventh grader Jett Johnson proved that he is the real deal, outperforming his nearest middle school counterpart by about 100 spots, and securing an astonishing top 20 performance in the state at his young age, finishing 19th with a 16:55.65.
“(Johnson) was very strong,” Benoit said. “In the beginning of the season he asked if he had a chance at top 25 in the state, and it took me aback, but I was like, ‘you know what, you do’. He’s the best seventh grader I’ve seen, he’s off the chart. He loves running, with a great work ethic and a great teammate.”
Nathaniel Henshaw, a sophomore, was right on his heels, reeling in 21st place and posting a 16:57.61.
“Last year as a freshman (Henshaw) ran 18:32,” Benoit said. “This year as a sophomore he improved by 1:35, and that’s a huge improvement to a really fast time. I believe that he made the most improvement from last year’s state race, to this year’s state race.”
The top 5 all finished in the top 30 in the state, which was extremely impressive, as Connor Stach took 29th with a 17:18.31 to complete the scoring.
“The top five guys nailed their goal places almost exactly,” Benoit said. “I knew if they were anywhere near those goal places, that there couldn’t be another team to take it from us. It’s a great feeling, I’ve been really confident in how they’ve been running and how it’s been all season.”
Freshman Danny Garrison did a lot of damage as the first displacer, finishing 41st in the state with a 17:28.65. Cypress Lance completed the Panthers’ representation rounding out the team with an 83rd place showing and 18:16.49.
“I knew if anything happened to the top 5 guys that (Garrison) would be right there to clean it up,” Benoit said. “It was just a really good feeling.”
The first state title came in 2017 for the Panthers with a nip-and-tuck battle with Hopedale and Pentucket, where the top 3 teams were separated by 6 points. The Panthers remained consistent over the next few years, finishing in 8th place in 2018, 2nd place in 2019, and after COVID-19 wiped out 2020, the Panthers secured the title in 2021 over Lenox. The younger Panthers last year finished fourth.
“I can honestly say that this is the best team I’ve had in my 26 years at Parker,” Benoit said. “They’re quite a team. There’s a lot of schools, and we’re about the smallest of the small schools, we’re really small. We’re about 200 kids in our high school. I feel really good about what this team achieved.”
For a small school, massive accomplishments like state titles can go a long way in strengthening the school community and school spirits.
“Everyone takes notice,” Benoit said. “It’s great for the Parker community, our principal was there, many of our teachers were there and a lot of friends and family. To have that type of performance in front of people who love and support us was extra special. From my perspective, this was an all-time performance from one of my teams.”