BY KEN MORSE
Naugatuck track coach Ralph Roper always had an athlete or two, in prior years, that headed out to the New England championships and then went on to Nationals.
In the past two seasons, the Greyhounds have brought a large contingent of athletes to the New England’s and then competed at Nationals. Going through the rigors of a regular season and then vying for a league championship is one thing.
Moving on to the state championships is a reward for a job well done and with a little luck you might even get to compete in the state open. To compete at the New England championship is a true sign of excellence.
Beyond that, you are approaching uncharted waters, for the most part, when you go to the Nationals and you’re facing the very best athletes from all across the country. It’s not an opportunity to be taken lightly and most teams just don’t have the means to qualify.
“Just walking into the Armory in New York City is so surreal,” said Naugy senior Brendan Lyles. “Competing in a place where professional athletes and Olympians have competed, it really is an exciting atmosphere to be in.”
For those that do qualify they are met with another stiff challenge even before race day approaches. Since Nationals are corporate-sponsored like Nike or New Balance, these events are not sanctioned by the CIAC. What that means is teams are not allowed to use their school uniforms and all entrance fees are to be paid out of pocket.
“Competing at the Nationals just brings that excitement to another level,” said sophomore Divine Kabongo. “Traveling as a team and with your family really brings everyone that much closer together. Certainly a great experience to be part of.”
The Naugatuck track team has excelled over the past few years and have proudly taken their show on the road, last year and this year, with a large group of athletes that got to experience this once in a lifetime event.
But in order to make this a reality, the athletes and the team needed to reach out for assistance and the community of Naugatuck rallied around these young student-athletes to provide the means to compete on the National level.
“I’m very proud of the community and how they stepped up to support our athletes,” said Roper. The Mayor (Peter Hess?) has been very supportive as well with his podcast and having us on to talk about our achievements.
“The parents, the school and the administration have brought a lot of positive attention to the kids. Megan Smith runs the booster club and she is on top of everything, she is one of my former athletes.”
Roper continued: “There is a lot of logistics that need to come together in a very short period of time to make this all happen. The McCasland’s have been very supportive with pasta parties. Jen Kropo is always very supportive and Heather Anderson, our team photographer, does a great job preserving those memories for us. It took so many people to bring this all together for the kids.”
Naugatuck did not disappoint. Last year, the girls 4×400-meter relay team of Lily Jason, Julia Kropo, Lauren Sonski and Allison Murphy were Class L champs and State Open champs, and they also earned All-New England honors by finishing fifth. The relay team placed 17th in the nation at the New Balance championships.
“I was a little surprised by the amount of support we received because track isn’t really a well known sport like some of the others are,” said the Naugy senior Sonski. “I think once people found out about what we were doing they reached out to help support our efforts.”
This year, the girls 4×200 relay team of Kabongo, Lauren Kropo, Sonski and Jason was first in Class L, fourth in the State Open, and just missed All-New England, placing seventh. Kropo was Class L runner-up in the 300 and finished fourth in both the state open and New England meets. Jaesah Perry was fifth in the high jump in Class L.
“I was in this same environment last year with the 4×200 team and consider myself very fortunate to be back here again,” said the sophomore Jason. “It gets a little nerve-racking at this level. You get up to the starting line and you are like, oh God. Once you start running it just feels great to be competing with the best athletes across the country.”
Zach McCasland, Shayne Hasipi and Lyles teamed up on the Class L 4×800 runner-up relay with Jason Costa, then did it again with Dan Anderson on the 4×400 runner-up relay. Jayden Bartelle was 3rd in the Class L high jump.
“It takes a lot of work to get to a place like this,” admitted Naugy freshman Kropo. “But coach Roper had us very prepared for this. His workouts are very hard but it’s so worth it in the end when you are here competing at Nationals. It really doesn’t get much better than this.”
Naugatuck went to Nationals with a group of 10 athletes, coaching staff and parents. The 4×400 girls relay team of Kabongo, Kropo, Sonski and Jason medaled with a fifth place finish in a season-best 4:04.99 in the Emerging Elite Division.
NHS indoor track athletes compete at nationals in New York City
BY KEN MORSE