Tori Mariano considers herself a "mother hen".
Never mind that she's only 17. The Shaker High senior has taken on the role of mentor and leader to several of the cross county team's younger runners this fall and the results, well, they speak for themselves.
Freshman Kaleigh Higgins and eighth-grader Leonni Griffin have joined Mariano to form one of the most dominant distance trios in upstate New York, one that has had a major impact on each of the eight races they had run heading into the Nov. 1 Section 2 meet. The threesome had combined for top-five finishes in four of those races, including the Oct. 18 Albany County Championships. Mariano won with a personal-best time of 14:32 while Griffin [14:36] took second and Higgins [14:59] finished fifth, leading Shaker to the team title as well.
"The Counties were pretty cool," Mariano said. "Leoni was near me the whole time and she has a super good kick. I've been working on mine all season and I wanted to stay with her so I could test my kick, which was pretty neat. We basically ran the whole last mile together side by side. We came down the stretch pretty close together and then I kicked."
The trio also combined for top-10 finishes in two other races while Mariano and Griffin finished in the top 10 in two others [Higgins finished 12th and 14th, respectively, in those races].
Mariano has tried to be a guiding force for the youngsters on and off the course, setting a positive example while leaving a legacy she hopes will carry on for years.
"I'm like their mother hen; they definitely look up to me," Mariano said. "I love it. It pushes me to do well, too. It's been really good for us and awesome for the team. It's great for the three of us to know that we fall near each other because it pushes us to the finish line. It benefits the team as well, which is what it's all about. So the three of us having each other has been nothing but positive."
L-R - Higgins - Mariano - Griffin - Harding
Mariano didn't start running cross country until the 10th grade because she was playing soccer. She says that, at the time, she didn't really have an older girl to whom she could turn as a mentor so she just naturally assumed the role. Mariano said she "probably benefitted" from taking on that role then because she was able to learn from her own experiences.
Higgins, meanwhile, began running cross country as a seventh grader, the same year Mariano joined the team. Mariano admits that the two weren't close that first year but when the 2018 season began the trio began training together and have become almost inseparable.
"They are my training partners," said Mariano, who is the team captain. "I am in a lot of pain with them. We relate to each other and it makes our friendship stronger. It makes me really happy knowing that they can learn from a good example. I hope they can carry out things that I taught them as they get older. It makes me feel good that I can do that for them."
Higgins, 14, labels her relationship with Mariano like that of having older sister. The group hangs out together on weekends - Mariano drives - and truly seems to enjoy each other's company.
"It helps me," Higgins said. "She knows so much. I can talk to her about what I should do when I'm older. I ask her about college stuff. She just helps everyone because she is so experienced.
"In the beginning of 11th grade [for Tori] we started to get close. Tori and I have had a good bond for two years now. We had summer training and it's carried over to a good cross country season for us. We are just so close."
Keith Weiss, who is in his first year as the girls cross country coach at Shaker after spending five years as an assistant for the boys team, has been impressed with Mariano's maturity and the way she has worked with the younger runners.
"She [Mariano] is very humble," said Weiss, who added that he credits former long-time coach Marbry Gansle, who coached at Shaker for more than 40 years, for much of Mariano's and the team's success. "She didn't really do cross country until the 10th grade so I think one of the reasons why she is humble is that she has only recently risen to the level she is now. I think she was impressed by their [Higgins and Griffin] performance until she was able to rise to the level of competition they were already at.
A recent feature on former Girl's Coach Marbry Gansle by the NYSPHSAA Captains Club
"She's been great with them. She's been able to show them the ropes, give them advice in terms of training, nutrition and sleep habits. She has certainly become a student of the sport and does everything to the best of her ability to improve and I appreciate her for that."
Mariano will take that work ethic to college next fall. She's currently looking at The University of Connecticut, Siena, Marist and Albany. She hasn't decided on a major but has it narrowed down to teaching and physical therapy.
Her father was a teacher and she got a first-hand look at what a physical therapist's job is like last winter when she suffered a stress reaction in her left ankle during the winter season. She was out from the end of February until the beginning of April but had an epiphany of sorts while going through rehab.
"I can see myself doing this," Mariano said of her work with the therapist. "My injury might have also been the best thing that happened to me. I started cross training and got stronger. It changed the way I ran. I ran a lot stronger and learned that taking breaks was essential in the process.
"Over the summer I didn't train harder, I trained smarter and listed to my body. It was okay to take a break. I think that has contributed to the season I am having and what I'm doing right now."