East Haven Features Experience on the Trails
The East Haven cross country program is ready to hit ground the running for its opening meet of the 2020 season this week. The Yellowjackets’ boys’ and girls’ squads will each begin their respective campaigns with a multi-team meet at Eisenhower Park in Milford at 3:45 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 2.
East Haven features 11 runners between its two teams this fall, including eight seniors and three juniors. Head Coach Anthony Russell feels that having a roster filled with upperclass athletes comes with its pro and cons. While the Easties have plenty of experience coming into the season, they will also have to recruit plenty of new people to compete in future campaigns.
“It’s both good and bad. It’s good because they’re seasoned runners, and they’ve been doing it for a long time on both sides, but the bad part is we don’t have a great younger following yet,” said Russell, who is also head coach of the East Haven girls’ basketball squad. “I’m hoping in the years to come, we can get some younger runners. We’re doing our best, but this year, with COVID, it’s tough to recruit. But I’m excited about having this group of kids.”
The boys’ team features seniors Ian Reynolds, Andrew Voira, Jeff Maffeo, and Kevin Francois, along with junior Frank Papa. Reynolds, Voira, and Maffeo are all returning to the team from last year. Reynolds and Maffeo will serve as East Haven’s captains this season.
“They’ve both been running for four years,” said Russell of Reynolds and Maffeo. “Ian is the type of kid you don’t have to worry about. His work ethic is second to none, so whatever you tell him to do, he is going to do. Jeff comes from a family where all of his sisters were runners, and he is used to me and how we do things.”
On the girls’ side, the Yellowjackets feature seniors Erin Currin, Samantha Franceschi, Nicole Pendziwater, and track standout Kisha Francois, as well as juniors Juliana Espinoza and Tanner Punzo. Currin, Pendziwater, and Espinoza are all returning for East Haven with Currin and Pendziwater serving as the team’s captains.
“Erin was new to our team last year, but ended up being one of our best runners,” Coach Russell said. “Nicole has been with us for four years, but lost last season due to injury. She got injured in the first meet, and she’s excited about getting back into it this year.”
While adding new members to the program is a top priority for Russell, he still feels confident about that the talent that he has on this year’s squads. In the end, Russell knows that having experienced runners will only help the Yellowjackets as they traverse the trails.
“We’re a senior-laden team on both sides, so I’m hoping those three years of experience helps us when it comes to races,” said Russell. “They understand how we do things, the miles we put in, and the workouts we do. Hopefully, it carries over into meets, and we’re pretty competitive this year.”
Like every other sport in Connecticut, cross country has seen the same practice restrictions put in place by the CIAC due to COVID-19. However, Coach Russell said that those restrictions haven’t had any major implications on the Yellowjackets. Russell said that it’s been easy for his team to engage in social distancing on the cross country course and that the team’s practices are essentially the same length that they typically would be.
Even though the practice restrictions haven’t taken a huge toll, the Yellowjackets have had to deal with the aftermath of the storm that destroyed the East Haven High School football field, as well as the course that the cross country team would normally run on. Consequently, East Haven is not hosting any home meets this year and has been practicing by running around various places throughout the town.
“We’ve mapped our runs through the community that we have done for the last 15 to 20 years. Whatever the mileage is that day, they know to go on that particular run,” said Russell. “The Bennett Road Run, a Rite-Aid run—we have a bunch of runs that are mapped out for three, five, six miles, depending on the day.”
The East Haven boys’ cross country team is competing against Jonathan Law, Platt Tech, and West Haven in its first meet of the season. The girls’ team will square off with those same three teams, in addition to Sacred Heart Academy, in its opening matchup.
Coach Russell said that East Haven has plenty of self-motivated athletes in the fold this year. Russell is hoping that the experienced runners mesh with the newcomers to produce a successful season.
“Our message is consistent every year. First of all, we have to have five kids to score in a meet, so that’s our first goal. The second thing is to improve during the short amount of time during the season—improving our times every day, showing up to practice, and improving every day for when we get to meets,” Russell said. “Hopefully, we can steal a few meets against teams, because we have kids who have run before. Cross country is a different animal. If you don’t put the work in the offseason, it’s hard to succeed. You have to work at it all year-round.”