Jim Kinnier has been coaching Pierson girls cross country for 18 years, and while he doesn’t know much of the history of the program prior to that, the longtime coach is confident when calling senior Penelope Greene the best female runner to have ever gone through the Sag Harbor School District.
Greene’s resume is impressive, and it’s what largely led to her earning a spot on the cross country and track and field teams at SUNY Geneseo, which she will be attending next fall, after having signed her letter of intent to do so on May 11 in Pierson High School’s auditorium.
Greene won back-to-back Suffolk County Class D individual titles her junior and senior years, and was a state qualifier all four years running on the varsity team, placing as high as seventh as a junior to earn All-State honors. She most likely would have placed even higher had there been a state meet this past season, but the state canceled all championships due to the pandemic.
Greene added First Team All-Long Island honors to her resume after representatives from the Nassau and Suffolk County track coaches associations, Nassau Suffolk Catholic High School Athletic Association, and USA Track and Field-Long Island released their selections last Thursday, May 13.
Kinnier said there are a number of things that make Greene such an elite runner, the first being that she runs on a regular basis, throughout the summer, and then after cross country season, she runs for East Hampton’s indoor and outdoor track teams. She recently set a new East Hampton school record in the 3,000-meter race, finishing in 10:52.09 to break her teammate’s — East Hampton senior Ava Engstrom — previous record of 11:01.82, set on May 21, 2018.
Kinnier also said that while her laid back, quiet demeanor may not say so, Greene is built for running, and she’s very competitive.
“Someone like me could do all the running in the world and I wouldn’t be able to run competitively,” he said. “Her appearance doesn’t show it, but she is very competitive, she wants to improve herself and she wants to win.
“Lastly, she actually likes running,” Kinnier added. “In college, she will be with others who like running, too. It will be a more enjoyable setting for her.”
After playing soccer since the first grade, Greene said she got into running when she and her family ran in the Shelter Island 5K the summer before she went into eighth grade. After doing well, she realized she may have a knack for running, so she dropped soccer altogether and started to focus on cross country.
After qualifying for states her freshman and sophomore years, Greene said she knew she made the right choice to stop playing soccer and focus on running.
“Being the youngest on the team, I looked up to my original teammates, and Coach Kinnier is a great, supportive mentor that saw my potential and encouraged me,” she said. “The real kicker was when I finished seventh in the New York State Class D race at SUNY Plattsburgh, making All-State. Being on the podium was surreal.
“It’s been pretty special,” Greene added about her high school athletic career. “I’m happy that I got into cross country, that running grew into a good fit for me. I’m glad I changed to cross country. I can’t imagine myself still playing soccer or any other sport.”
Greene also comes from a strong family of runners. Her grandfather, Peter Greene, at one point held a school record at Suffern High School. Her father, Baylis, ran for Bridgehampton during his high school years, and both of her uncles, Stephan and Kevin Brennan, ran competitively at their respective high schools before moving on to run at Division I Marist College in Poughkeepsie.
“So you can say it’s in my genes,” she said. “Coming from a running family, I’ve always had great support.
“Junior year, I placed well at the 2019 Brown Invitational, and Coach Kinnier said that I would start hearing from colleges,” Greene added.
And she did. In January 2020, not too long before the coronavirus outbreak, SUNY Geneseo track and field and cross country head coach Dan Moore sent a letter to Greene, then spoke regularly on the phone with her and had a real interest in possibly bringing her into his program. While Greene was fielding offers from Division I programs, such as Manhattan College, she said that Moore and his Geneseo program stood out to her.
“The school academically was a good fit for me,” she said. “Everyone I have talked to who went to SUNY Geneseo loved it and had great things to say, especially someone who I look up to, Dana Cebulski, who was one of my assistant track coaches at East Hampton.”
Moore admitted in an interview on Monday that he’s never seen Greene run live, mainly due to the pandemic and the restrictions that were in place limiting spectators at cross country and track events the past few months. What he liked from Greene was her “athletic profile” and her personality.
“A large part of the recruiting process is getting to know personalities and getting to know them as a person, not just an athlete,” Moore explained. “And I tell each and every athlete I speak to who comes to us, what you’ve done in the past is great but that is the past now. Sometimes athletes kind of hold on to that, but when they come to us, they’re in a new process, in a new system with new training partners so we really build them up ourselves.”
Moore said that while Geneseo may technically be a Division III program, cross country teams are basically not divided by divisions, and that his runners will compete against runners from larger schools, and they typically run well against those runners. Moore said they have a program they follow at Geneseo where the first year is a transition from high school to college, year two is development, with the next two seasons based largely on results. Because of a logjam of recruiting classes due to COVID, Greene and her freshman teammates are going to be joining the team with sophomores who still have never really run in college.
“I was pumped that she chose Geneseo, I think she’s got a huge ceiling, huge upswing potential and I’m excited to work with her,” Moore said.
Greene said as she transitions to college running, she’d like to one day be an All-American — and Kinnier thinks she has what it takes to do anything in the sport.
“What I am fully confident in, is that she will make a name for herself in the running community,” he said. “There are no barriers in her way.”