Notebook: A program rises in Staten Island

Marissa Olivieri was defiant.

With her back to the sun on the Van Cortlandt Park home stretch, the Port Richmond girls’ cross country coach sounded out why her team, the defending PSAL champions, would not give an inch.

“We’re a very competitive team- extremely competitive,” said Olivieri, chopping the air with her left arm for emphasis. “This team has a lot of pride and we’re defending our city championship.”

If Olivieri talks tough, it’s because she is. Now in her sixth year at the Staten Island school, Olivieri, a former runner at Notre Dame Academy and Manhattan College, tackled the challenge of building a winning program in the same way she does most anything: she attacked it.

“I’m a relentless person,” said Olivieri. “I just keep after it. If I see a girl that I think can be good, I just keep on trying. Keep on trying, call their parents, keep on trying.”

When Olivieri arrived as an English teacher and cross country coach at Port Richmond in 2006, she could not understand why a school with 2,200 students had 10 runners on its cross country team. She began a campaign to bring them out, speaking to students in classrooms and in the hallways of the school.

“For me, the first step is recruiting and showing them what running can do for them, “said Olivieri. “My philosophy is that running parallels life: it can help you on a lot of levels.”

Her efforts culminated last fall when Port Richmond, led by seniors Nynneya Columbus and Danielle Sorrentino and junior Jaclyn Panepinto, won its first PSAL cross country championship.

“That was a turning point for our program,” said Olivieri. “This is my sixth year. I believe it takes five years to build a program. Not just build a team- a program.”

Port Richmond’s rise has sent shockwaves through Staten Island and beyond.

“Port Richmond is raising the bar up for everyone right now,” said McKee/Staten Island Tech cross country coach Patricia Mulligan. “A lot of people have seen them go from nothing to where they are now. Some of the girls notice that if you want to get to that level, you can get there.”

Port Richmond finished fourth in its opener at the Villa Bears Invitational on Sept. 17, led by Panepinto’s fourth-place finish overall. Columbus (Morgan St.) and Sorrentino (New Haven) are now running at the college level.

"They set the tone, like a standard," said Port Richmond sophomore Yazmin Wilson-Jones, a member of the school's city championship team. "I think we're doing a pretty good job of holding it down for them."

This year's team has a similar buzz as the last. They have 50 runners now. Plus, a culture of winning.

 “We really want to show that the city schools excel at the long distances and not just on the track,” said Olivieri.

Adds Wilson-Jones: "I don't think people thought we could do what we did last year. It's only going to get better."