It was just about 11 months ago that Sarah Connelly (Mt. Sinai) started to feel as if she belonged in the group of prep runners that are considered the nation's elite.
It's not that she lacked confidence in her ability; she simply hadn't had many opportunities to run at that high of a level before placing 30th in the NXN Championship Race on Dec. 1. That effort, which she ran in a personal-best 17:45.10 on the 5,000-meter course, came on the heels of a seventh-place finish in the NXN New York Regional a week prior.
That eight-day stretch made a world of difference for the Mt. Sinai senior who now expects a return trip to NXN a year after not even being sure of what she had to do to qualify for the prestigious race.
"I didn't even know how to make it to NXN but my coach [Bill Dwyer] told me I had a chance," said Connelly, who committed to Syracuse on Oct. 24. "I didn't even know what that was, really, and I talked to my brother [Daniel] and he said if I made it to NXN that it would be the coolest thing ever.
"I was shy at NXN. I'm not talkative in a group and I didn't feel like I was part of that [group]. Afterward, though, I realized that everyone around me was amazing. After the race I started to realize that wow, I was actually part of that group."
It wasn't as if Connelly was a slouch heading into the 2018 NXN qualifier and finals. She was coming off a New York State championship and a fall season that saw her win seven of the nine races she entered. The NXN experience, however, propelled her to a strong winter season and an even stronger spring season that saw her win a second state title, this one coming in the 1,500 meters [a personal-best 4:31.11].
That success has continued this fall as Connelly has won each of the four races she has entered, setting her up as one of the favorites to collect her second consecutive NYS crown.
"Making it to NXN was the highlight," Connelly, 17, said. "That was the starting point. I realized that these girls are cool but I'm cool with them. This past year, in 11th grade, taught me that I am part of that New York group [with the likes of Katelyn Tuohy and Claire Walters].
"It's crazy to think that but I definitely proved to myself in 11th grade what I am capable of doing. I hope to prove myself again this year. NXN was very motivating to get to the next level and I know I can do better."
Dwyer thinks she is capable of continuing that success over the next few weeks despite her light schedule, one that didn't take her off Long Island, this fall. Connelly didn't run in the Eastern States, which would have given her a chance to go against Tuohy and Walters, largely because Dwyer doesn't want to push her too much.
"Your body needs time to recover," he said. "She's been going all year and I want her to have her best career in college and to be healthy. That is my goal with all my athletes. To see them do better in college makes me feel successful.
"I think she's going to do very well [moving forward]. She's developed the tools to become a competitive athlete in whatever situation she is put into. The bigger names don't concern her. We focus on one thing at a time and that has worked all the time. Just enjoy running and have a good time and ignore all the extemporaneous stuff."
Some of that 'extemporaneous stuff' went away when Connelly committed to Syracuse. Connelly, who is hopeful of becoming a veterinarian, had also been looking at Providence, Iona and Stony Brook [where her brother attended]. She said she was mostly looking at small schools during the beginning part of the search process but after her official visit to Syracuse, she changed her mind and wanted to attend a larger school.
That Syracuse has an excellent pre-vet program also swayed her decision. It also takes her away from home with the chance to experience running in the Atlantic Coast Conference [ACC].
"Stony Brook is 15 minutes away from me and I wanted a new feeling," said Connelly, who pointed to her love of animals as the driving force in her decision to enter the pre-vet program. "The team and the program was great and I had a gut feeling that Syracuse was the right choice for me."