The Hornets’ usual cross country venue - Cathedral Pines Conservation Area in Manchester - isn’t available for use this season due to COVID restrictions. Once the School Committee gave the okay to move forward with a fall season for Manchester Essex Regional High School in late September, Hornets coach Steve Whittey and the MERHS Athletic Department needed to find an appropriate place nearby that fit pandemic-era guidelines.
“One of the things we looked at was Stage Fort Park in Gloucester - Gloucester uses that as their home course - but the Gloucester DPW didn’t want any additional use in there because of COVID,” explains Whittey. “We looked at Ravenswood Park, but the Trustees didn’t want us in there because of COVID. We looked at Sagamore Hill - which is near the Ipswich-Essex border, part of it is in Essex, its owned by the Greenbelt -- but they didn’t want us in there because of COVID.”
The team ended up much closer to home at the end of the search, in an environment that’s unique for the sport: Singing Beach in Manchester. The initial foray at the location was a success, with both the ME boys and girls cross country teams earning victories over Georgetown in the first meet of the season on Oct. 1.
Of course, running five kilometers to complete a cross country course is not an easy thing to do under ideal circumstances. It’s something that requires practice, commitment and drive to accomplish. That accomplishment is made that much harder when running on shifting sands instead of the solid ground most cross country courses present.
“It’s a different thing to be running in the sand,” says Whittey. “It can be somewhat difficult at times.”
During the first meet, there was an attempt to incorporate some of the parking lot as part of the course in order to give runners something a little more solid to run on, but the prospect of traffic coming in and out of the lot during the race will likely scuttle that idea going forward.
“We decided that doing anything up and around the parking lot is not that safe,” says Whittey. “We don’t have the ability to control the traffic, and the beach is still open to Manchester residents. There was enough traffic in there that we didn’t like.”
So, for the remainder of the season, the Hornets will call Singing Beach their home. Its not unheard of to use the venue in the sport - the middle school team used the beach for meets in the past - but using it for cross country at the high school level required bumping up course size from three lengths of the beach to seven-and-a-half lengths. It also poses some other never-before-seen complications, such as navigating the tides.
“We were supposed to host Pentucket this Friday for our jayvee meet, but we can’t do that because its high tide then and they can’t get here at another time,” says Whittey.
When they can hold meets, the Hornets should be pretty formidable, especially on the boys side. The boys team boasts a roster of 16, giving them a good deal of depth, while the girls have seven on their roster. Manchester Essex won the first of six Cape Ann League meets with the victories over Georgetown last week, with the cross country team slated to face Hamilton-Wenham on Oct. 8 and Amesbury on Oct. 15.
The girls team will lean on co-captains Oli Turner and Anna Whitten this season. Turner was the top finisher last Thursday against Georgetown (21:35), while Whitten finished with a time of 29:36.
“Oli is a returning captain, she was a captain last year with Olivia Ford,” says Whittey. “She’s the top runner on the girls’ side. Anna’s one of the other seniors on the team, she’s been running indoor track since middle school, cross country since her freshman year. They’re both solid students, they know what they’re doing and they’ve got some good leadership aspects.”
Other key contributors this season include Jane Whitten, Mary Annabel Chrzanowski, Lily Pilaud and Sarah Braimon.
The boys, meanwhile, are led by co-captains Eli Heanue and Will Kenney. Heanue has a great deal of experience, and Whittey considers Kenney to be one of the best runners in the state (the senior finished in under 15 minutes in the Georgetown meet).
“They were both almost unanimously selected as team captains,” Whitty says of the duo. “They both do a good job, they have knowledge of the sport and they have good leadership aspects. They’ll do great. Eli has been running cross country for six years, and for Will, this is his fifth year running.”
Also contributing this season for the boys team will be Colin Harrison and Charlie Lations, in addition to freshman standouts Mac Edgerton, Finn O’Hara and Connor Burke.
“We’ve got four freshmen on the boys side that are running well,” says Whittey. “Two of them have been running cross country since the middle-school level. We knew they were going to come in and contribute right away.