Leader of the (strong) pack
As a sophomore at Pembroke High, Wesley Gallagher wanted to improve his speed for lacrosse, his favorite sport. He decided to join the cross-country team to stay in shape for the spring season.
The Titans captured the Division 2 All-State title.
Last November, Gallagher paced Pembroke to its second straight All-State crown, placing first overall on the 2.9-mile course at Gardner Municipal Country Club with a time of 14 minutes 20.5 seconds.
Now a senior, Gallagher is the leader of the pack for Pembroke, which is 8-0 in dual meet competition and determined to capture its third straight state crown.
“Lacrosse used to be my main sport,’’ said Gallagher. “I really liked running and the atmosphere of cross-country, so I quit lacrosse and stuck with running. I average running 8 miles a day.’’
He calls last year’s win at the all-state meet shocking.
“It was an amazing experience,’’ he said. “When I started, I never thought anything like that could happen. I didn’t even know I won when I finished. I couldn’t stop smiling.’’
Hired in 2005, coach Greg Zopatti calls Gallagher his ace. “It’s cool having a guy like Wesley on the team,’’ he said. “It’s like having an ace or a few aces in a poker game. It’s nice having him and being able to go to him when we need him.’’
His runners, however, are motivated by the “team concept.’’
“It’s great having Wesley, but it’s more important to develop everyone else around him,’’ Zopatti said. “His value is greater by having a good team around him. We’ve been focused on developing five through 14. That’s really where a good team is. We can hang our medal on those guys scoring the points at the end of the race.’’
The Titans prepared for the rigorous season by working out twice a week over the summer, spending two hours focusing on injury prevention, core strength, and yoga exercises, in addition to running.
Gallagher is not the only speedster on the team.
The Titans have a solid group of four: senior captain Joe Vercollone and sophomores John Valeri and Christian Stafford usually finish in front with Gallagher.
Last Tuesday the four-pack demonstrated its agility, prancing to the finish line of the Silver Lake’s 2.9-mile course in 15:56, not winded.
Gallagher, Vercollone, Valeri, and Stafford crossed the finish line at the same time, a full 1:08 in front of the Lakers’ lead runner, Jimmy Nickerson.
“During league meets we stick as a pack and feed off each other,’’ said Vercollone, who, like Gallagher, joined the team as a sophomore.
Before the race, the pack ran a 15-minute warmup, essentially running the course before the actual race. After completing the course, the lead pack jogged to the sideline and cheered on their teammates sprinting to the finish.
Vercollone likes running alongside Gallagher.
“Wesley is one of the best runners in the state and in the region,’’ he said. “It lets you know you’re also in really good shape if you’re running next to him.’’
“He just has natural talent. He kills it. Winning it last year, his second year running, is unbelievable. He made it look easy,’’ he said.
Zopatti lauded the work of his captains.
“Wesley is an awesome captain. He’s a lead-by-example guy. Joe is more of the vocal leader. He does more of the talking. He does an outstanding job.’’
Valeri said that Gallagher “always helps you out if you’re having a bad day. He’s a great motivator. It’s also really cool to run with an all-state champion.’’
The Titans also are shooting for a return trip to the national high school cross-country championships in Portland, Ore.
“We went last year, so the goals coming into the season were to win [Division 4] again, win all-states for a third time, and give our best crack at making it to nationals,’’ said Zopatti.
“Everything has been focused on those three things. The kids are really locked into it.’’
Pembroke must finish first or second at the regional meet on Nov. 26 in Bowdoin Park, N.Y., to qualify for the national finals.
Gallagher plans to run in college at the Division 1 level, but has not yet made a decision where he wants to go.
He has, however, locked in his post-college plans.
“I’d really like to run a marathon someday when I get out of college and keep running them until I get old and can’t do it anymore,’’ he said.
Vercollone also wants to run at the next level. “I want to run in college, but I’m a bigger fan of track. But I do love the team aspect of cross-country.’’
Gallagher likes the strategic element.
“I have to plan when to use my energy, when to move up, when to pass people or give it a burst of speed,’’ he said. “There’s parts of the race where you’re thinking ‘I want to stop right now, it hurts.’ That’s when it helps when you’re running with your teammates. We all push each other.’’