THOMASTON – It was a Thomaston Day at the Berkshire League Cross Country Championships at Black Rock State Park Thursday afternoon. Of that there can be no denying as the Bears claimed the boys team title and individual girls crown in the comfortable October air.
Salutes to the Nonnewaug girls team and Housatonic’s Kyle McCarron on their titles are also in order, For McCarron it was a second straight first-place finish.
When you own the day, when you make the day and the moment yours it is always special. For the 2023 Golden Bears team this was their time, their magic. In the bigger picture, however, it gets better. This wasn’t just a Thomaston day it was another Thomaston Day in a very long run of Thomaston cross country days.
This was hardly a unique happening for the Bears program. It is a program that knows the finish line and has reached it first an amazing amount of times at both the BL and state level. Prior to 1994 there was a terrific 1973 Class S boys championship team spearheaded by the brilliant Dean Stephens, a future Ivy League champion at Dartmouth, one of the BL’s best ever. However the title train didn’t start rolling until a little later.
Mark Olsen arrived on the scene as coach in 1994 and since then championships are either in Thomaston or seemingly never far away. And, they’ve been pretty evenly divided between the boys and girls teams.
During Olsen’s tenure the boys have won eight BL titles and four Class S state championships. The girls have won nine BL titles and three Class S state crowns. That’s a BL title about every other year and a state title every four to five years. Next time you are in the Thomaston High gym check out the wall opposite where you walk in. It is all cross country. At some point the Bears might need a bigger gym.
Freshman Briana Belanger joined a star-studded bevy of Thomaston girl champions with her championship this time around. Her title was the Bears’ 8th in the last 12 seasons. Count’em – Sabrina Olsen (2012, 2013), Sammy Brier (2014, 2015), Meg Desmarais (2018, 2019, 2020), Belanger (2023). It’s called domination.
The boys teams have had their share of greatness, among them the brilliant Richie Klauber (still holds the Black Rock Course record) who won three BL titles and earned All-New England honors before going to Quinnipiac and earning Northeast Conference Performer of the Year honors and fleet-footed Gabe Olsen a two-time Class S champion.
They keep coming and running (fast).
So where does it all come from? Certainly there has been a steady stream of talented runners. But how does a school of Thomaston’s size bypass one-hit wonder status? This year’s champions come out of a school of 200 students, the boys champions born out of a pool 85 boys in the high school. Where does the nose for the finish line ahead of the competition on such a consistent level come from?
Olsen, maybe more of a psychological mentor than a tactician, admits he doesn’t know. But he has some ideas.
“My coaching philosophy and Eric’s (assistant coach Kociszewski) is that old school – being harsh, doesn’t work,” says Olsen. “It kids don’t have fun it isn’t going to happen. We work on the right attitude and being supportive of one another. It’s a different atmosphere.”
Olsen drifts from the nose-to-the grindstone approach. The Bears have been indoors so often because of the monsoons this season that the Frisbees are brought in and the team plays ultimate Frisbee.
“I talked to one of the runners on another team and he said they have a rule no music on the bus,” Olsen said. “I say bring it on. The last couple of years we’ve been playing Barry Manilow, Copacabana.”
A line from Manilow’s classic seems fitting – “They were young and they had each other. Who could ask for more.”
Olsen’s teams have bought into the approach that what you do is important but it’s not the end of the world.
“We’re all friends and hang around together,” said this year’s team captain Josh Dalesio. “We have fun like our Adventure Run. We take a long run and see what we can find like different rock structures and things like that. “
So how does the fun part mix with the desire to be successful? There is a legacy in running for Thomaston. But Olsen doesn’t push the past on the present. Nor are the runners awed by what came before. It’s a balance. Do what you do as well as you can, but don’t drag the bad days with you.
“If runners have a bad day we talk about it but we don’t dwell on it,” said Olsen. “If things don’t go well the only person that is going to be disappointed is that person. We work really hard on what goes on in the head.”
The success stories go well beyond those who win championships. Olsen talks with pride about runners like Will Hungerford on this year’s team. As a freshman he was doing 40 minutes (3.1 miles) and by the end of the year was doing 24 minutes. This year he finished 12th in the BL Championships.
He remembers J.D. Duncan who came into the program finishing last in most 8th grade races. In 2007 and 2008 he was a BL All-Star.
“I think in bigger schools these runners wouldn’t have gotten any attention,” Olsen said. “Kids want to feel success. Josh Dalesio wasn’t treated well early in his career. This year he is captain of a championship team and when kids are happy about their performance they hold their head high. “
This year’s team has written its own success chapter in Thomaston’s success story while posting its second straight undefeated season. It was pack attack at its finest with Beau Kociszewski (3rd), Dalesio (5thL), Hungerford (12th), Nathan Sermanoff (13th), Taylor Gomes (16th) Erti Shkrepi (17th) and Jackson Didonato (19th).
Belanger, the Bears’ newest individual champion defeated defending champion Katherine Beauchene who seized the moment knowing when it’s there take it. She is the only freshman to ever win the title out of the impressive list of champions.
It was a day tinged with a strong flavor of brown and gold. A Thomaston day, It is a day this year’s team can take with it down the road. Equally impressive and striking it that it wasn’t just a Thomaston day. It was Another Thomaston Day.
Build a bigger wall in that gym.