Popular perception is everything came easy for the Elmira girls cross country team this fall.
The Express breezed through three dual meets, won all but two invitationals, and dominated both the Southern Tier Athletic Conference championships and the Section 4 Class A meet.
The reality, however, is Elmira’s season has been built through an extraordinary amount of hard work and by persevering through difficult circumstances.
“It’s been a crazy year, just with different things happening,” Elmira coach Ben Cardamone said.
The reward has been great, though, with the possibility of bigger things ahead. Elmira will battle eight other Class A teams Saturday at the New York State Public High School Athletic Association championships at Elma Meadows Golf Course, near Buffalo.
Although a title is a long shot, Elmira has an opportunity to claim a berth in the New York State Federation meet with a solid performance.
“We’re hoping to get to Federations and hoping for a good race,” said Melinda Wheeler, the only senior among the seven runners who will compete for Elmira.
She will be joined at Elma Meadows by junior Briana Lentkowski, sophomores Khiere Ashley, Imari Johnson, Jordynn Kurcoba and Jessica Thatcher, and freshman Abby Wheeler, who is Melinda’s sister.
Change in direction
Two years ago Elmira Free Academy finished fourth in Class B at the state meet after claiming a Section 4 title under coach Jason Stukey. With a roster dominated by eighth-graders, there were high hopes for the future.
Then came the hammer of budget cuts, forcing all teams in the Elmira City School District to merge. Suddenly those EFA runners had to join forces with Southside. As with any union, there was trepidation.
“Since we always had a rivalry with Southside, at first it’s like, ‘Oh, we consider you enemies. It’s weird being friends with you,'” Johnson said. “But since we were combined (in indoor), we were kind of used to it. There were some bumping head issues at first, but now we all love each other.”
That is not an understatement.
While pretty much every successful team will play up its unity, Elmira’s girls talk about each other more as family than teammates. They run together all year and six of the top seven attend EFA, with Lentkowski the only Southside student.
“We have all this team bonding and we’re all so close and we all have laughs with each other,” Johnson said. “Just being really good friends helps a lot. You can run with anyone, but when you’re really close it helps.”
Coming into the 2011 season, Melinda Wheeler and Thatcher were counted on to be two of Elmira’s top runners. However, their lives took dramatic detours as school was about to start when they were injured in a car crash that also included Andy Thatcher, Jessica’s older brother.
Wheeler suffered a concussion and later tried to return to the team, but it was discovered she had a pelvis injury that also forced her to miss basketball season.
Jessica Thatcher was hospitalized for a week. Cardamone said she had a 10-foot piece of small intestine removed along with her appendix, which turned out to be cancerous.
“An accident that could have killed her actually ends up saving her life,” Cardamone said.
It was not until deep into the spring track season that both runners started to return to form. Now they are at the top of their game, with Wheeler placing fifth in the Class A race at sectionals and Thatcher sixth.
“We were really excited,” Thatcher said of their attitude before the season. “I think the accident and being out from running motivated us to go and have a good season. Me and Melinda are both back to our peak performance.”
As the only senior, Wheeler has provided more than top finishes to help the Express win its first sectional title together.
“Melinda, she’s a senior saying, ‘Hey, this is it for me. I’m going to get it done,'” Cardamone said. “She’s been a great leader; probably one of the best I’ve ever had.”
Blend of talent
Much of Elmira’s success is attributed to putting in roughly 40 hours running per week during the season, not to mention time spent working out throughout the year.
With the merger putting Elmira’s runners at the highest classification, Cardamone made the girls aware they were going to have to take their training to another level. New York is among the best states in girls cross country, with fellow Class A state finalists Fayetteville-Manlius and Saratoga ranked first and ninth nationally, respectively, by The Running Times.
Said Cardamone: “‘That’s what we’re dealing with now. This is a new ballgame. Whatever you thought was hard before, that whole definition is going to change because of who we have to race. We’re racing some of the best kids in the whole United States.'”
He said the girls have responded to that challenge and it is evident in the results. Elmira’s only two invitational losses this season came outside of Section 4.
Cardamone took over the combined team after having great success at Southside. He also coaches indoor and spring track and the amount of time he puts into the sport is widely admired. Thatcher describes him as “a great coach” and “very motivational,” while also caring greatly for his runners.
This team’s success has come without a truly dominant runner, though Abby Wheeler has taken over as Elmira’s No. 1 girl in her first season of varsity. She took second at sectionals following a fifth-place effort at the STAC meet.
Thatcher, Melinda Wheeler and Ashley have generally held down the next three spots on the team. Kurcoba was Elmira’s fifth-highest runner at sectionals after Lentkowski held that designation at the STAC meet.
“I don’t care personally,” Melinda Wheeler said of individual finishes. “I don’t know if other people care. If I have a bad race and my teammates will be there ahead of me, I’ll be happy for them. The order of our team doesn’t matter.”
Lentkowski has come on strong after she was slowed by a thyroid issue earlier in the season. That came after she had a big scare in February when her brother, Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Burbank, was wounded in Afghanistan.
Johnson’s season has been hampered by a hip injury, though she agreed this experience has been more about team than individual performance.
“Two years ago we went to states and I was in a lot better shape. I was the second girl,” she said. “The places on the team don’t matter as much anymore. We just want to have a big team effort and go out there and attack every team that we can.”
Cardamone said the potential exists for each of the seven to race near the front.
“Obviously, some girls have maybe a little better mindset for being the top girl on this team, but every single one of those girls is capable of being the top girl on this team,” he said.
“Some of their workouts, you could throw a blanket over them. They’re doing repeat miles and you could throw a blanket over all seven because that’s how close they are when they’re working out.”
With two of the nation’s top 10 teams in the field, Elmira is unlikely to contend for the title. But there is plenty at stake for the Express, which can run its way into the state Federation meet that will be held Nov. 17 in Wappingers Falls.
The top nine teams from Saturday’s four girls races qualify for Federations. Cardamone said a top-five Class A finish would likely open that door for his team.
He said a perfect race would be a fourth- or fifth-place finish, with seventh place an average day. But everybody agrees the ultimate goal for the girls is to run their best.
“We want to go there and represent our school, which is exciting because we’re the only team from our school that won sectionals,” Thatcher said. “We get to go and represent Elmira Free Academy and Southside, and hopefully place well.”