This fall was a fresh start in more ways than one for the boys’ cross-country team at Pembroke High.
The Titans entered the season as the three-time defending EMass Division 2 champions. But the squad was still a bit miffed after failing to three-peat as the Division 2 All-State champion last November, losing to Bishop Feehan by two points.
Pembroke was also minus three very talented runners who were accepted at Division 1 college programs.
Wesley Gallagher , the state’s Gatorade Runner of the Year in 2011-12 and a three-time All-American, put together a stellar freshman campaign at Northeastern University. He set the pace for the Huskies at the New England 8K championship, placing 12th overall.
Joe Vercollone , also a three-time All-American, is preparing for his first indoor track season at Providence College. And Jesse Fine , who qualified for the Nike Cross Country Nationals in 2009 and 2010, is running at the United States Naval Academy.
That left big shoes to fill for the returning runners.
But the Titans made a triumphant return, cruising past Bishop Feehan by 21 points in the Division 2 All-State meet last Saturday at Northfield Mountain.
“It really feels like a weight has been taken off our shoulders,” said junior John Valeri , who covered the 3.1-mile course in 16 minutes, 20.50, placing fifth overall, just behind teammate Christian Stafford (16:20.18).
“It’s been a long 365 days thinking about what could have been and should have been last year. It’s rewarding this time around.”
Pembroke’s top seven runners — Valeri, Stafford, along with senior Patrick Cunningham, and juniors Lucas Tocher, Phillip Martin , Alex Bowler , and Billy Stafford competed in Saturday’s Nike Regionals at Titans Track Club in Wappingers Falls, N.Y.
Christian and Billy Stafford are two of a set of triplets and this was their first trip to nationals together. The third of the trio, Tyler Stafford , runs cross-country at Silver Lake, where he takes carpentry in the vocational tech program.
The entire team spent this summer preparing for this season, using past teammates as motivation.
“We won so much last year before all-state and then we went into our first year without Wes Gallagher and Joe Vercollone,” said Cunningham.
“They were a big influence on us. It was a huge deal that they didn’t win the state championship last year. In a way we were winning this one for them and winning it for all the alumni that graduated.”
Aside from training every day this summer, the boys also worked with Joe Kelley , a volunteer conditioning coach, two days a week. One workout involved tying tires to themselves and running sprints on the turf.
Greg Zopatti , who coaches both indoor and outdoor track at the high school, is credited with developing a successful program since he was hired in 2005.
“Our team, it’s really been motivated and shaped by our coach, Mr. Zopatti, who we call ‘Z’,” said Christian Stafford. “He’s a really great guy. Without him we would never have accomplished any goals we’ve ever had. He knows his stuff.”
Zopatti has trained great runners and great leaders.
Not every runner qualified for the all-state meet. But the runners who did compete realize that every member of the program contributed in one way or another to the championship.
“It’s very impressive to see the work being done this year,” said Valeri.
“There were a lot of guys who weren’t able to run at the state level, especially Chris Warren . He’s a very impressive leader. If it wasn’t for him pushing us these past two years, none of us , from the top runners to the back end, would be where they are without him.”
Warren is a senior captain along with Cunningham, senior Mike McMahon , who placed 54th at the all-state meet (17:38.38), and senior Pete Graceffa .
Cunningham, who hopes to run at the collegiate level, is eyeing the University of Rhode Island, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the University of Connecticut.
And even though he is departing, he said the program is in good hands going forward.
“They’re going to be ridiculous,” said Cunningham. “You know just having John and Christian and Billy, they’ve already run in three state championship races. Already if we make it back to Nationals they’ll experience two or three trips to Portland. They’re going to have a ton of experience no one else has. They’re going to have an edge over everyone. They’re probably going to be the best team we’ve ever had.’’
The team as a whole has proven that its changing cast of characters achieved in past years.
“We graduated three outstanding captains in Wesley Gallagher, Joe Vercollone, and Jesse Fine, but our underclassman really stepped up over the year and summer,” said Zopatti.
“They put in the work and they wanted to stake their claim to a championship and prove to everyone that no matter who we graduated, there will always be someone there to step up. We run as one team with one common goal.”