Pierson Runners Remain Optimistic In Face Of Uncertain Final Season

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Pierson cross country runners Ben McErlean and Penelope Greene, photographed at Mashashimuet Park on Monday. Michael Heller photo

If Penelope Greene and Ben McErlean were feeling a little down and frustrated right now, it would be hard to blame them.

The Pierson High School students have had the unfortunate luck of their senior year and a global pandemic coming at the same time, which has meant the cancellation or postponement of a lot of things they’ve looked forward to, the rites of passage that come along with the final year of high school.

In addition to missing out on being in school five days a week and socializing like they normally would with friends, they’ve felt the particular pain of being student-athletes whose fall sport — cross country — has been pushed to the spring in what will be a shortened season, if it happens at all.

Despite those disappointments, they’ve both managed to look on the bright side, and have stayed sharp in a sport that requires plenty of self-starting discipline and motivation. They received some good news recently, with the recent announcement from the New York State Public High School Athletic Association that “low risk” sports like indoor track can proceed this winter. (It will be a shortened season, in order to accommodate both the spring season and postponed fall sports in the remainder of the school year).

While other athletes might head into the indoor winter track season a bit out of shape because of the lack of a fall cross country season, Greene and McErlean have impressed their coaches by remaining focused and committed to their running regimen through the fall, meaning they both feel good as they prepare to start practice on January 4 as members of East Hampton’s squad.

Greene and McErlean are both poised to have banner seasons when cross country resumes in the spring, and while the shortened season means there won’t be a state championship to aim for, they are hoping they still have the chance to end their high school careers on a winning note. They spoke last week about how the pandemic has upended their senior years, and how running has been a constant for them in a time of upheaval.

For McErlean, the way the virus disrupted normal life has been a blessing in disguise, he said. Since school began, he’s been engaged in fully remote learning, which he said has given him more leeway to make his own schedule, and his focus on running.

“It gave me the freedom and time in terms of scheduling to do the training I’ve done,” he said, adding that his grades have even improved. “Because I wasn’t on such an official schedule, I could just wake up, eat, and go running.”

The freedom to make his own schedule has been a good thing for McErlean, and he’s also spent extra time working out with coach and Pierson alum Joe Boyle, a cross country standout in the 1960s, who he said has helped him create workouts that supplement the long runs he takes most days.

McErlean did not always have such a laser focus on training. He started running cross country in middle school, and was always fairly fast without putting in too much effort. But after he qualified for states in Class C in his sophomore year with teammate Peter Schaefer, McErlean said he started to take the sport more seriously, and was intent on not only making states as a junior, but finishing near the top. But last year didn’t turn out as he’d hoped, despite the fact that he made All-League First Team, and All-Division. A late-season illness derailed his training, leading to a tough outing at the Suffolk County Championships, where bad cramps meant he could not achieve the county Class C title he was aiming for. He was still able to advance to states, but had what he said was a subpar finish there as well, taking fourth among Class C runners. Redeeming himself from those disappointments has been a big part of his motivation to train hard this fall, McErlean said.

“Every single day since then, I’ve thought about winning those races,” he said. “States is cancelled this year, but the Suffolk Championship could still happen.”

McErlean said he was excited about the postponement of the fall cross country season for a very specific reason.

“It gives me half a year to get even quicker,” he said, adding he believes he hasn’t reached his potential yet, and is eager to show people what he can do. “I want to put on the best show I can for the town of Sag Harbor.”

Boys cross country head coach Joe Amato said McErlean has the ability to end his high school career in the kind of winning style he’s aiming for, provided the cross country season does happen in the spring.

“I think Ben will have another successful season,” Amato said. “He has a very good chance to be undefeated in league competition and become the Class D champion.”

McErlean is not the only Pierson athlete who will be gunning for a county title in the spring. Greene has been a standout for the Pierson girls cross country team for years, and has times that are competitive with some of the elite runners from larger schools across the county, earning All-County and All-State honors last year. Like McErlean, she has not let the absence of fall cross country practices disrupt her training routine, and head coach Jim Kinnier has been impressed with her ability to stay on track, saying she diligently followed training routine suggestions on her own in the weeks before the team was able to come together again for optional practice sessions at Mashashimuet Park two days per week.

“I have basically coached cross country the same way for decades, and she is the one who has followed through the most,” Kinnier said. “During races, she is very competitive and always wants to beat whoever is in front of her. Her current distance and pace is consistent with what it would be if we were in season.”

Kinner said he expects Greene to defend her county Class D title and finish with All-County status again, perhaps among the top 10 runners.

Greene is more soft-spoken and reserved than McErlean, who is effusive and enthusiastic about the future despite all the uncertainty that has become a constant this year. They count each other as friends, and live within walking distance of each other. While they may differ in terms of personality, they’ve both shown a love of running and the kind of dedication that leads to success in what can be a lonely sport.

Greene has maintained her fast times and training even as she manages school and working several shifts at Sen in Sag Harbor on the weekends. She runs every day of the week except Fridays, usually winding her way through the Mount Misery area or through town. Staying committed to a running routine is essential for her success as a competitive cross country athlete, but she said it was also good for her mental health, especially in the earlier months of the lockdown at the end of last school year.

“Especially during quarantine, going out and running was a good way to get out of the house, and it made me feel better,” she said. “It made me feel like I was doing something.”

Greene is hoping a strong indoor track season will help propel her to success with cross country. For the upcoming winter season with East Hampton, she’s hoping to decrease her time in the 3,000-meter race and also wants to break five minutes in the 1,500. Greene is also planning on continuing her running career in college, and has been in talks with coaches from several schools, including SUNY Geneseo and Iona in New York, and Haverford College in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Greene said she’s always been drawn to running because there is both a team element and individual aspect to the sport, and also for the simple fact that finishing a race always feels good.

She said she’s grateful to be involved in a sport that’s deemed “low risk” these days, adding that while the pandemic has caused the cancellation of so much, it has also given her and her peers valuable perspective.

“We’ve mostly just kind of complained about how we didn’t get our prom, and we don’t get to go out and get lunch like normal seniors would, but that’s all kind of trivial,” she said. “Years from now, I think we’ll be like, wow, that was a crazy time that we lived through, but we got through it, and the silver lining is that we were still able to see each other and got to go to school because it didn’t get as bad out here. We’re fortunate to be able to go to school and even have sports at all.”

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