Pilgrim senior Natalie Tocco set a fast pace in Monday’s City Cross Country Championship at Goddard Park and thought she was home free. Then, late in the race, she glanced back and saw Toll Gate sophomore Erika Pena coming hard.
“At first, I could hear the people behind me and then it died off, so I thought, ‘Okay, I’m good,’” Tocco said. “Then I see Erika coming. She’s got legs as tall as I am, so I knew if she had a kick, she could beat me at the end. I love Erika and we’re friends, but I couldn’t let her do that. It’s my senior year. She’s got two more years. I had to do this.”
And she did it.
Tocco pushed the pace over the final stretch and held off Pena by six seconds to win the Warwick title in 20 minutes, 32 seconds. Pena finished second in 20:38 and was the first of six Titans to cross the finish line consecutively, which gave the Titans the team title. Pilgrim was second and Vets was third.
On the boys’ side, Hendricken sophomore Michael Potter led nine of his teammates to the line as the Hawks won the crown and finished off an undefeated dual-meet season. Toll Gate beat both Pilgrim and Vets for second place, and Vets edged Pilgrim for third.
For Tocco, the win wasn’t just a victory over city rivals – it was her first victory ever.
“It’s my senior year and I’ve never been first in a cross country race before,” she said. “Coming in, I felt like, ‘It’s my last dual-meet race. Go out with a bang.’”
That mission was accomplished. She crossed the line exhausted, but excited.
“She’s been on the cusp of winning one of these meets the last few weeks, so I knew it was coming,” Pilgrim coach Issy Nielson said. “She’s been improving every week. She’s fantastic. We had a feeling. We knew she could do it and she did.”
Pena’s second-place finish continued a strong season for the sophomore, who ran well at the Ocean State Invitational just two days earlier. She was the fourth Rhode Island finisher in the Varsity I race at that event.
Pena and her teammates had all run hard in the Ocean State Invitational, so they didn’t know what to expect on Monday. But they stuck with Tocco as she broke out fast and they didn’t fade.
Haley Moen finished second for the team in 21:40, and the next four Titans all finished with times under 23 minutes. Jess Cawley was fourth, Danielle Petrangelo took fifth, Elena Chace finished sixth and Abby Tillotson finished seventh.
“They had the race on Saturday and they all kind of ran hard,” said Toll Gate coach Jon Deming. “We figured coming into today that they would be a little banged up and a little tired, but they ended up with P.R.’s for the season today. For them, that was great. Natalie Tocco took them out fast. Six minutes for the mile, which is faster than what our girls have been doing. They all kind of went together and they all held on.”
Katie Lavallee, Debbie Jessup, Mary Russo, Melissa Monti and Annie Martella all finished in the top 20 for the Titans, who beat Pilgrim 20-42 and Vets 15-50. The wins helped the Titans finish with an 8-3 record in the Suburban Division. They’ll now turn their attention to the Manhattan Invitational and then the class meet, which will determine whether or not they qualify for states.
“They should get in,” Deming said. “We had six girls under 23 minutes today. That’s pretty good. We had a couple of injuries, some girls out, but we’re all kind of getting back, ready to go and amping up for that championship season.”
Freshman Danika Wayss was Pilgrim’s second finisher. She took eighth in 23:18. Megan Wilks finished 11th, Emily Pride took 13th and Claudia Demelo was 20th to round out the Pilgrim top five. Jaycene Chattelle, Julissa Gonzalez, Becca O’Donnell and Courtney White finished just behind Demelo. Pilgrim closed the season with a 5-6 meet record.
Vets was led by Angie Marks, who cracked the top 10 with a 10th-place finish in 23:47. Catherine Johnson was 14th, Sarah Grace-Plante took 15th and Elizabeth Bennett finished 16th. Chelsea Reid rounded out the top five in 26th. Vets finished at 4-7.
In the boys’ race, Hendricken led the way despite a busy week-and-a-half in the rearview mirror. The Hawks ran in the Manchester Invitational on Sept. 22, had a tough dual meet against East Greenwich on Sept. 24 and then competed in the Great American Cross Country Festival in North Carolina this past weekend.
Most of their top runners still hit the course Monday and took care of business to finish off a 12-0 season.
“It’s been a tough last week,” said head coach Jim Doyle. “We had three meets in one week. East Greenwich last Monday and we had to run all out to beat them. We had a tough race in Manchester. Then North Carolina. This is our fourth race in nine days.”
The top Hawks finished in a pack around the 17:02 mark. Potter took first despite having to take off one of his shoes during the race. He was followed by Colin Tierney, Connor Doyle, Greg Beaudette and Tyler Henseler. Collin Manning was close behind in sixth, Grant Gauthier finished seventh, Pat Gower took eighth and Tom Grizetti finished ninth.
“They tempo-ed it out, stayed together and focused on hitting some times,” Doyle said. “We held out a lot of our sophomores who ran in North Carolina, because we didn’t want to get them hurt. Our top guys are a little more fit and they’re able to do this.”
The Hawks finished 10th at the Great American race but felt like they could have done a lot more. They’ll re-focus as they head into championship season.
“We’ll try to cool it down a little bit now and get ready for the state championship,” Doyle said. “That’s the most important thing right now.”
Though the Hawks dominated the head of the pack on Monday, Toll Gate, Pilgrim and Vets got solid showings from their top runners. Toll Gate’s Henry Smithers was just behind the second group of Hawks and finished 10th in 17:28. Vets’ Ian Anderson was 12th in 17:48 and Pilgrim freshman Brandon Lawton finished 13th in 19:07.
Toll Gate ended up beating Pilgrim 22-37 and Vets 21-38. Austin Medeiros was the Titans’ second finisher in 16th place. Pat Rocchio was 17th, Ben Dinobile took 19th and Evan Carley finished 25th to round out the team’s top five.
The Titans finished the dual-meet season with an 8-4 record, good for fifth in the division. Like the girls’ team, they’ll be looking ahead to the class meet, where they’ll have a chance to qualify for states.
Vets was led by Anderson, whose strong finish helped his team beat Pilgrim. That win secured the team’s first winning record since 2001 as the ’Canes finished with a 7-5 mark, just behind Toll Gate.
Nick Thompson was the second finisher for the ’Canes in 22nd place. John Nordin took 24th, Evan Anderson finished 29th, Dean Busik finished 37th and Kyle Waters was right behind him in 38th.
Pilgrim was led by Lawton, who was the top-finishing freshman in the race. Cameron Devine took 18th for the Pats, Sam Eleuterio finished 20th, Kyle Buonfiglio finished 47th and Brandon Paiva rounded out the top five with a 50th-place finish. Pilgrim finished with a 6-6 dual-meet record.