When Sachem High School on Long Island split into Sachem High School East and Sachem High School North in September of 2004, girls’ cross-country began again. Pete McNeill’s Sachem team had finished as high as second at the State Federation Championships in 1997. Now, things were different.
“We had a strong program in the 90’s,” said current Sachem East coach Jim McNeill. “When we were split into Sachem North and Sachem East, both teams took a hit.”
Building a healthy cross-country program depends on many things. None are more important than numbers.
“Our track program had steadily gotten stronger,” said McNeill. “But we had been struggling on the distance end. We had not been able to gather up a critical mass up until last year.”
When Rachel Paul and Melanie Notarstefano gave up soccer as juniors at Sachem East to run cross-country in September of 2010, they did so to improve their track times.
“At first it was to get in better shape for track,” said Paul. “We’d run some 800’s and 400’s; we didn’t think of ourselves as long distance runners.”
(photo credit: Charles Stone)
Unknowingly, they had started a movement.
On Oct. 9, When Sachem East finished seventh at the Eastern States Championship at the Manhattan College Invitational at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, it was clear that something had changed with the cross-country program at the 2,600-student school.
“Something clicked this year,” said Paul.
Paul, whom McNeill remembers as the “kid who would go out like a crazy-person and just hang on because she’s a tough kid” and Notarstefano, a 400-meter runner, have brought Sachem East back. Or rather, to where it’s never been.
“When you get older people who are running passionately, the younger girls see how much work we put into it,” said Paul. “And we’re starting to benefit from the work. Our times are really decreasing.”
Sachem East is running with the state’s best. After going elbow-to-elbow with teams like Fayetteville-Manlius, ranked No. 1 in America, and North Shore at the Manhattan College meet, Sachem East, which is ranked No. 6 in New York State in Class A by Dan Doherty, won the Brown Invitational girls’ championship on Saturday. However, the program’s goals are more far-reaching than that.
“(Our goals are) not being satisfied with ‘Ok, we won the Brown meet,’ because that’s not the end,” said Paul. “We want to start a great decade of Sachem running, for the freshmen that come (in the future). The program has to keep growing.”
Paul has become the ideal frontrunner. The hard-nosed senior, who finished seventh overall at Manhattan College, is an All-American on the track, finishing fifth in the 1,500 meters at the U.S.A.T.F. Junior Outdoor Track and Field Championships in June. However, it’s her charisma- along with her example- that has helped Sachem East grow.
“(Her teammates) see her work ethic and that she’s a student of the sport,” said McNeill. “She’ll make a point of telling everyone that she saw something on Dyestat or on MileSplit or Flotrack, and they’ll say ‘Hey, maybe I’ll take a look at that.”
Now, McNeill has a group of sophomores that are following the lead of Paul and a hard-driving group of seniors that includes Notarstefano, Danielle Vazquez, and Samantha Maurice.
“They’re providing a nice little backup for the current seniors,” said McNeill. “We’re kind of expecting this to continue after this senior group is gone. It looks like they have turned the culture around.”
For Paul and her fellow seniors, a new era of girls’ cross-country has arrived. And they’re not finished yet.
“We are creating history right now because it’s such a young program,” said Paul. “We have to leave a big history.”