FALL RIVER — Kristin Lavoie didn’t know how to react. This was all new to her.
A senior captain and a four-year member of the Durfee High School girls’ cross country team, she had just been part of the Hilltoppers defeating Somerset Berkley Regional in Sept.11 dual meet in Somerset.
“I was quite honestly speechless,” Lavoie said at practice on Tuesday. “I hadn’t won a meet in the four years I’ve been at Durfee.”
Sparked by the presence of two talented Kuss Middle School eighth graders, Maggie O’Connell and Camryn Letendre, the Durfee girls’ have jumped back onto the cross country map. In recent years, the participation numbers have been very, very low, with the Hilltoppers frequently competing with less than five runners, the minimum required to post an official team score.
Now armed with a still modest but competitive eight runners, the Hilltoppers own a 2-1 dual meet record.
Durfee’s waiver request to use middle school athletes was approved by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association. New Bedford High School, Durfee coach Joe LeMar noted, has used the waiver in recent years to help keep its cross country program alive. Durfee has followed suit. "Now," LeMar said, "they (middle schoolers) have an outlet to come up and compete at the high school level and hopefully stick with us after that.”
O’Connell and Letendre have been more than roster additions. They are Durfee’s top two runners.
One of the state’s top middle school mile runners the previous two school years, O’Connell has exploded onto the high school scene. She has finished first overall in all three dual meets, and that includes defeating SBR junior Jordan Ramos, last school year’s Herald News girls’ cross country athlete of the year.
Though she very much misses her middle school soccer (she was able to do both fall sports at Kuss), O’Connell has embraced the chance to race at the high school varsity level. The decision to do so “wasn’t that tough,” she said, “because there’s not really any competition in the middle school.”
In the win over Bishop Stang, O’Connell ran the 3.1 miles in 21:18. Letendre came in at 22:30.
At the 13th annual Martha’s Vineyard Cross Country Invitational, O’Connell won 3K freshman race by 49 seconds race in 11:37.02. Letendre (12:45.20) was fourth in the field of 47.
O’Connell and Letendre finished 1-2 overall against Stang. “It was exciting, because I got first and Camryn got second,” O’Connell said. “So that really puts us in the lead. Then we got fourth (Louraine Dayao), fifth (Lavoie), sixth (Meadow Worsley). It was a whole team thing.”
Letendre did not run in the season-opening loss to Bridgewater-Raynham. If she had, LeMar said, the Hilltoppers might be undefeated. She was third against Somerset Berkley.
Letendre struggled a bit with the decision to jump from Kuss to Durfee “because I didn’t want to let my (middle school) coaches down,” she said. “But I knew it would be a great opportunity for me.”
A frustrated recruiter for Durfee girls’ cross country during her four years, Lavoie, a top 10 student, has been determined to make the eighth graders feel welcome. To have Durfee finally fielding a true full team is a dream come true.
“If you ask any of my friends, I’ve bugged them all the time to join the team,” Lavoie said. “I tell anyone that I can to try and join. It’s just a hard sport to recruit for. Some will come out for a little while, but then fade away at the end of the season. A lot of people will just straight up say no and not even give it a shot.”
“It was difficult because I enjoy the sport. I like to run. Even sometimes it will be hard and I don’t want to do it, but it’s still a fun sport to do. And just not being able to have enough girls to compete when you only need five girls to put up points, it was just really rough.”
Lavoie said having the eighth graders on the roster and enjoying themselves is the important thing. Their significant abilities is a bonus.
“We want young people becoming involved in high school sports,” she said. “ And if that means we have to start pulling in our runners from the eighth grade level then that’s what needs to start happening,” Lavoie added.
LeMar said having the eighth graders emerge as the top dogs has not caused any problems.
“Both of them great kids, hard workers and a pleasure to see every day at practice,” he said. “I think it’s humbling for some, because right now you have Maggie being the No. 1 runner on the team. She pushes everyone to go and be better and you see the times throughout these meets now have improved for all of our kids.”
Email Greg Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @GregSullivanHN.