St. Clair cross country will rely on multi-sport athletes in 2021
The revelation for St. Clair cross country coach Tom Brenner wasn’t the brace that Jack Pennewell and Andrew Parr recorded in the Division 2 regional split last fall.
Nor was it how the Saints topped the scoresheet en route to winning the championship in Algonac and advancing to their 21st straight state finals, which is still Michigan’s best streak, regardless. or division.
The now fourth-year coach was actually more surprised that Sam Vitale and Carter Bollard finished just half a second behind Croswell-Lexington’s James Elling. Had they finished a second earlier, it would have given the Saints a double in a competition featuring strong rivals, such as Yale and Armada, as well as top individual runners, such as Cros-Lex’s Elling and Matthew Westbrook. . and Conner Uppleger of Marine City.
This offseason, the Saints need to replace three varsity runners now that Pennewell runs for Michigan State and Parr and Lucas Danko join the SC4 cross country team.
After seeing their efforts in the regional, Brenner is thrilled that Vitale and Bollard are taking the next steps to help replace this trio of college runners. But, more importantly, he is impressed with the effort Vitale and Bollard have put into camp this summer.
Pennewell, Parr and Danko were year-round runners – from cross country to indoor track to outdoor track, they were never out of distance running.
Vitale and Bollard, meanwhile, practice other sports. Boullard left cross country to join his father, former coach Mike Boullard, and the men’s basketball team in the winter. Then he and Vitale team up to play baseball in the spring. In fact, Vitale plays for East Coast Michigan, a traveling baseball team based in Richmond, also during the summer.
When most riders put up impressive marks at regionals, they start building on those times. Not Vitale and Bollard. They leave for basketball scrimmages and baseball practices after the season. They have to restart training every summer and work their way back to their elite time that keeps the Saints competitive in the Macomb Area Conference-Red every fall.
“They show up in the summer and work hard, go into the season and compete at a really high level,” Brenner said. “They are two of the best returning runners in the region and showed their competitive spunk in the regional meet where they made a huge statement by finishing nearly ahead of each team’s No. 1 runner.”
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Barring an injury on a baseball trip, Vitale will enter the fall as St. Clair’s top runner, plus he’ll be the most experienced on the team, which is saying something because the senior runs competing for only three years.
Vitale never raced in college. He showed up to practice on his first day as a freshman and tried out for the team. He eventually made it into the JV roster, but after just one race he catapulted himself into the college starting lineup, despite being a novice runner.
Brenner said it was former St. Clair and SC4 runner Raymond Hill who got the most out of Vitale.
“It takes extra effort to bring out the best in guys,” Brenner added. “Ray made him one of our captains back then. He’s one of the best leaders we’ve ever had. Now Sam is our fastest back runner, and he’s going to be a kid who will seize the opportunity to take on a leadership role and show the guys how things are done.”
Vitale improved throughout his career, but his junior season was the most promising. He recorded seven top-10 finishes and never finished worse than 14th outside of the state finals. He clocked a personal best 16 minutes, 38 seconds midway through the season and finished with a time of 16:40 in regionals, which was good enough for fourth place individually.
His goal is to be an all-stater and break the 15-minute barrier.
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“At the start of the summer, I have big shoes to fill, but I think a lot of us can fill those shoes because our team has put in a lot of work,” Vitale said. “It’s one of my goals to be the best runner, but it’s going to take a lot of work in the summer to catch up. In the summer, it’s a bit difficult to participate in each race because of baseball, but I try my best as i can my baseball season ends in july then it’s all cross country until the season starts sometimes i feel like i’m being pulled in two different directions but i love baseball as much as cross country, so it’s all worth it.”
Bollard, who clocked a personal best 16:42 in last year’s region and had six top-10 finishes as a sophomore, is definitely a coach’s son, which is evident by his approach. to improve in the off season.
The rest of the starting lineup behind Vitale is expected to be Bollard and David Harris, a pair of juniors, as well as senior Cole Cunningham. But that leaves three starting positions open to gain.
Brenner said he liked what he saw of senior Connor Kreger, juniors Joe Edgemon and Pete Vitale, brother Sam and second Dylan Distelrath. But anyone could do a Sam Vitale-like push on the first day of practice to steal one of those spots.
Bollard is confident the Saints will not only replace Pennewell, Parr and Danko, but find runners who are willing to work as hard as those outgoing seniors.
“These guys were really, really good runners, so it will definitely be interesting this year, but we’ve been working this summer and we know we’ll be good,” said the junior. “We’ve got a lot of guys in the mix. It’s not necessarily about replacing them, but it’s about getting to work and trusting the process. Come Benzie Central time (the opening of the season), it’s definitely going to be interesting to see. But I know guys like me, David and Sam are capable of working hard, and we’re definitely capable of (lead the team).
“We’re definitely taking it one day at a time, and I know for me every race is about getting my lungs back to where they need to be. I know some guys will be ahead of me who normally wouldn’t be, but I don’t care about that. I need to get my lungs back where they belong. These first two weeks of summer training are grueling, and I’ve been in real pain every day. But I have I just trusted the process and I know my hard work will pay off when the season rolls around.”
St. Clair kicks off training camp Aug. 15, then opens the season with the infamous Pete Moss Invitational, a meet he won in 2020, Aug. 28 at Benzie Central. Only time will tell if multi-sport athletes such as Vitale and Bollard will have what it takes to help maintain the Saints’ state finals streak in the absence of Pennewell, Parr and Danko.