Many of the best distance runners migrate from other sports. None has done so with as immediate and overwhelming impact as Connor Nisbet, a regionally ranked tennis player who has become Delaware’s top cross country runner in his second year of competitive running.
Combining a distance runner’s mettle with a tennis player’s method, the Friends School sophomore capped an undefeated season by winning the Vic Zwolak Award as the state’s outstanding cross country runner.
He is joined on the All-State team by:
- Vail Freed, Appoquinimink senior, the Division One state meet champion;
- Brendan Balthis, sophomore at Division Two titlist Tatnall, second to Nisbet in the Independent Conference and Division Two meets;
- Michael Keehan, Salesianum sophomore who was second to Freed in the Division One meet, pacing the top team in the state;
- Andrew Avila, Wilmington Charter freshman, the Blue Hen Conference champion;
- Bryan Delle Donne, Newark Charter junior, the Diamond State Conference champion; and
- Alex Horgan, St. Andrew’s junior, who led the Saints to a best-ever third place in the New Castle County meet, earning coach of the year honors for Dan O’Connell.
On arriving at Friends last year after middle school at P. S. du Pont, Nisbet sought out cross country coach Paul Nemeth, who has developed a succession of top-flight runners and a joyous atmosphere. Nisbet enjoyed the running part of his tennis training that much.
Nisbet made an immediate impact. In his second week of high school, he won the freshman race at the White Clay Creek Invitational. The next day, he won the small-schools race at the Lake Forest Invitational. By season’s end, Nisbet was the eighth-fastest finisher at the state meet, after skipping the county meet for a regional tennis tournament.
“It’s hard to play two sports at the same time really competitively because of how different they are at some points,” Nisbet said. “I love both sports and to be able to play both at a high level is really great, but sometimes they interfere with each other.”
Blending the two sports was, however, ideal for his training. Focusing on his racket for most of the summer, Nisbet entered the fall in strong condition, but not overworked. Tennis encourages interval training, so Nisbet’s legs were already in tune when he began cross country workouts in August.
“Tennis has made me a great cross country competitor, and cross country has made me a better tennis player, even though the sports aren’t strategically similar,” Nisbet said. “When I go onto the cross country course, it’s like figuring my way around a tennis court. The competitive nature of each sport helps me succeed in the other one.”
Part of the tennis culture is to know your foil.
“It’s all about doing research on my opponents and keeping my wits about me. I know George Steinhoff is a very good track runner, so you don’t want to leave him in the race to an 800-meter sprint,” he said of the Salesianum senior who chased Nisbet to his personal best (15:37) in October. Steinhoff’s 15:43, in the Joe O’Neill Invitational showdown, featuring three lead changes, was the second fastest of any Delaware runner this year, before a calf strain, then a 104-degree fever, felled him in the season’s final weeks.
In Nisbet’s victories in the championship phase – the Independent Conference, New Castle County and state Division II meets – tactics buttressed his training base. When Tatnall’s Balthis, the state’s other standout sophomore, challenged him in the conference and state meets, Nisbet countered successfully. He won the conference meet by 1.6 seconds, his narrowest victory of the year.
“He’s confident, not afraid to take the lead,” Balthis said. “He’s versatile and physically tough. I would try to overtake him with surges, to take his legs out, but he was strong enough to keep the lead.”
He clinched his best-in-state ranking by winning the New Castle County meet, the last gathering of all the state’s top runners. He tucked in behind early leader Delle Donne, galloped downhill for a lead, then outlasted Freed with countermoves, in which Nisbet accelerated modestly to a level that would tire his challenger, yet preserve his own energy.
At the state meet, he was beset with challengers from his own Independent Conference, the state’s strongest cross country league.
“I didn’t know if it was going to be Hudson Pepper [of Tower Hill] or Nick [Garrett of Tatnall] or Alex [Horgan] or Brendan. I couldn’t foresee it because of how even the runners were this year,” Nisbet said. Balthis lasted longest, hounding him until the final 200 yards.
“For so many of the races I was nervous in the last 400 or 800 meters, about whether I could win or not. It all came down to how much would I have, just the belief that I could win even though it hurt a lot in finishing,” says Nisbet.
“It’s all worth it in the end. It’s almost better because of how it hurt in the race.”
With bright prospects beckoning in two sports, Nisbet will run track this winter and spring, buoyed by the prospect of running with all-county teammate Andrew Slomski and the Quaker crew, where there is no loneliness for the long distance runner.
“The competitive spirit is displayed a bit differently. In cross country, it’s a team thing, where I get to enjoy my success and talk to my teammates. It’s such a bonding thing. In tennis it’s more about yourself,” Nisbet said. “One of the things I like about cross country is that all your success and competitiveness is combined with your teammates’, whereas tennis is more like a lonely sport.”