Ryan Guerci will be one of the favorites at the huge Brewster Bear Invite this weekend.
There was a six-year old watching as former Pearl River standout Michael Hickey got bit by a loose German Shepard during a repeat mile workout in the Berkshire Mountains one August afternoon, home of the annual Pirate Cross Country camp for over 15 years. As a young boy, Ryan Guerci found his way to the five day camp on a couple of occasions.
The following year, as a seven-year old watching the same workout, he wanted to jog a mile in between with Hickey back to the start. His father, Jim Guerci, a former Pirate standout himself in the 1980's, was the head coach of the Pirates at the time and allowed his son to run with the intention of picking him up pretty early on. But he just kept going. And going. And going. And kept up with Hickey's jog for most of the distance back before finally hopping back into the mini-bus for a ride the rest of the way.
It is those days that Ryan remembers fondly, hanging out with his father who he has looked up to since he was young. And it is those days where he fell in love with the sport.
"Back when my dad was coaching, going to see the County Meet at Bear Mountain every year, it made me love cross country and got me excited and made me want to do it," Ryan Guerci said.
"To see the competition and the camaraderie of all the teams was something that inspired me."
While Jim had plenty of running success himself, it was his coaching that initially inspired his son.
"I think the role of coach probably played the biggest part," Jim Guerci said. " Because him coming to camp as a little kid, you could see he wanted to be a part of this thing from the get go."
Ryan's 'part of this thing' has grown significantly over the past month. Some runners see significant growth at the beginning of either their sophomore or junior years. Ryan has experienced that jump both years. But it hasn't come easy or without it's fair share of obstacles.
His freshman spring track season ended with a bout of pneumonia, which sidelined him for the better part of a month. Then he suffered from an inflamed lower back that took some time to heal at the beginning of his sophomore cross country season. Despite those two setbacks, Guerci made huge strides to place 22nd in the NYS Class B Championship at Chenango Valley, just missing out on a state medal. That left a bit of a sour taste in his mouth that motivated him through the track seasons and into this current one.
But the setbacks weren't done.
He had a second bout with pneumonia at the end of the winter season last year and suffered a groin injury that lingered for a number of weeks towards the end of the spring. Despite those, Guerci was able to return and help his team win a Section Championship in the winter and was a key member of their Distance Medley Relay teams both seasons, running the 1200-meter leadoff leg in quality times despite missing a significant amount of training time.
"The races right after I came back from injury and illness, it was a mental test of strength and resilience," Ryan said. "It provided me with confidence because I was able to bounce back from those hardships."
Knowing that he is now healthy and has a full summer of training behind him, Guerci was confident coming into the season. Sporting personal bests of 4:23 and 9:54 for 1600 and 3200-meters on the track, one that has watched him would know that he is capable of more based on those setbacks and they do not provide an accurate barometer of what he is capable of.
Even so, the start to this season has caught many off guard, including Ryan himself.
"I didn't know where I was going to be when the season started. I hoped that I could be a contender in Section One, but I didn't expect to be winning pre-states or running a personal best time at Bowdoin so early in the season," he said.
Guerci has opened eyes around the state to begin his junior season. Being right on the heels of Somers' twins Matt and Greg Fusco at their home invitational to open the season was a confidence builder for the Nanuet junior. The following week at the Wayne Invitational, home of this year's State Championship, he put his name on the map.
"Going into pre-states, knowing East Aurora and Ian Russ, and knowing he's beaten guys like Nate Lawler last year, I wanted to try and follow him and go off of him because I knew a fast race was going to happen," Guerci said. "I went off his pace for about two and a half miles. At about two miles he almost broke away, but I was able to stick there which was a morale boost."
"At 4000 (meters), I decided to try and go and went as hard as I could and I thought he was there the whole time. I didn't realize until about 15 minutes after the race how much I had won by."
Guerci won the race by 27 seconds, the entire gap created over the last mile. His time of 16:10 was the second fastest of the day.
"To beat a guy of that caliber helps me realize that I can be a contender at states and hopefully beyond that too," he said.
Guerci is running more confidently than he ever has. His support system is largely to thank for that. Gary Brissing has coached Guerci for three years and has played a major role in his development. His experience, coupled with Jim's has gone a long way. But it doesn't stop there.
"I'm more of the sounding board, to hear him. I cover a lot with the mental game of the sport," Jim said. "We ended very early on the 'dad thing' of being totally positive. He wants the realistic view of things."
That realistic view will come from both Brissing and his father. But Ryan goes even deeper than that.
"I think it is just experiential and sharing that experience," Jim said. "What we've done in the past as an athlete, team, coach, and try to build off of that. He even calls (former Pearl River coach) Rich (Michalski) to see his thoughts on things. He likes to take it all in."
Michalski coached the elder Guerci and the two worked together coaching Pearl River in the late 90's into the beginning of this century and remain very close.
"My dad has been really helping a lot. Rich has helped a lot. Everything is coming together with them giving advice and helping me to become a better runner," Ryan said.
As the calendar turns to October, championship time is around the corner and Guerci has had to readjust some goals.
"Right now, after the League Championship next week, it's a very positive thing for me because I can just get some good mileage and training in to contend at the end of the season," Ryan said.
The internet can be a blessing or a curse for runners depending on how they react to the information that they find. Ryan has used it to his advantage.
"Even though I ran so long ago, you can still find everything you want so he's seen all my times," Jim said. "He likes to set his goals to surpass me and I'm very happy when he is able to do that."
Ryan looks at the numbers in general as motivation.
"For a lot of people, the internet can psych then out when looking at numbers. For a select few runners, it can be a blessing because they can use the information to their advantage," he said. "They know how much harder they have to work to do the best they can and achieve their goals."
As for those goals, Ryan has set his sights higher, far higher than they were even as recently as one month ago. But he is keeping things in perspective.
"I'm still doing what I do," he said. "Just because I had that one race doesn't mean anything. One race early in the season doesn't define what you can do. I'm still just a random runner from Section One who is still trying to go out and perform his best."