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Coe-Brown girls’ cross country team trying to become New England’s best

Coe-Brown's Hannah Parker heads for the finish at the cross country division championships at Derryfield Park in Manchester on Saturday, October 27, 2012. 

(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

Coe-Brown's Hannah Parker heads for the finish at the cross country division championships at Derryfield Park in Manchester on Saturday, October 27, 2012. (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

The first clues came in the summer, when the incoming freshmen showed they could hang with the defending state champs during the long preseason runs. The next major sign came on Oct. 6 when Coe-Brown beat Champlain Valley of Vermont, last year’s New England champion, on its home course. And when the Bears ran away with the Division II and Meet of Champions girls’ cross country titles in the last weeks, there was no doubt left.

“We’ve been a good team over the years,” Coe-Brown co-coach Brent Tkaczyk said, “but never like this.”

Indeed. Two years ago, the Bears won the D-II title, finished fourth at the MOC and took sixth at the New England meet. Last year, behind freshman Hannah Parker, they won the D-II and MOC championships and took third in New England. This year, behind another influx of absurdly talented freshmen and the leadership of junior Jessie Carney, the Bears cruised to those two state titles and have their eyes set on claiming the New England crown Saturday in Cumberland, Maine.

“We’re going to New Englands to

try and win,” Tkaczyk said. “If that doesn’t happen it won’t make or break our season, but we’re not just showing up there like we have in the past just happy to be there. We know who the other uniforms are, we know what to expect and we’re going to try and win.”

That doesn’t mean the Bears are the favorites. Co-coach Tim Cox said that distinction probably belongs to the team from Barrington, R.I. And Champlain Valley still carries the reputation as New England’s powerhouse, despite finishing second to Coe-Brown at the prestigious Woods Trail Run in Thetford, Vt., back in October.

“We’ve only peaked into the New England level last year by placing third, so we’re still the new kids on the block and the competition is going to be phenomenal on Saturday,” Cox said. “But the girls do a great job focusing on what they can control. So we’ll come up with a game plan together as a team like we do every week and we’ll see how it turns out.”

So, how does a school of 715 students in the middle of New Hampshire develop into one of the elite cross country programs in New England? The answer extends beyond town borders, outside the team and staff, and even over the years.

“I think it’s variables and all the variables are equal. I’m not sure there is some right explanation,” Cox said. “It’s just the perfect storm.”

That storm started long before these girls even reached Coe-Brown.

“There’s so much great family support, and if you guys print anything I want you to print that,” Tkaczyk told reporters after the D-II meet two weeks ago. “Without strong families, these kids don’t do what they do.”

“If you go to our home meets the parents are the ones doing everything,” Carney said. “And then we have an away meet somewhere like Vermont and they drive all the way out there just to watch us for a few minutes. There’s no way we could do this without them.”

It did take some good fortune to get these runners from their ultra-supportive families to Coe-Brown, a regional school that draws from multiple towns. Freshman Brooke Laskowsky won a Deerfield lottery that allowed her a choice of schools. Parker, freshman Elisabeth Danis and the Scannell sisters, sophomore Katie and freshman Meg, are all from Nottingham and could have gone to either Coe-Brown or Dover High.

Of course part of the reason they all chose Coe-Brown was to run on a cross country team that won the D-II state title in 2010 led by Corey Dowe and Alex Archambault. Carney was just a freshman on that team, but she learned valuable lessons that year and the next, and she passed those on to the incoming runners.

“The transition hasn’t been difficult because the team has been really welcoming and helpful, especially Jessie Carney,” Danis said.

“These girls are really young and they don’t always know what they’re doing, and I don’t think I’d be able to help them unless I had the experience from the past years,” Carney said. “I learned from all these great leaders and they just gave me a lot of experience and knowledge to pass down, so I think it’s a huge factor.”

Cox and Tkaczyk, now in their 15th year as co-coaches, deserve plenty of credit as well. As Parker said, “They’re always so into it and putting so much effort into everything we do.” Effort that includes “preparing us physically, but also mentally and emotionally,” Carney added.

Then there’s the most important factor of all – talent. And these girls possess both the physical and mental gifts. Parker has the most pure speed, which she also showed during the 2012 spring outdoor track season when she earned all-state honors. Carney doesn’t have those wheels, but she’s used her long-distance strength and will to be the Bears’ most consistent performer this season. Katie Scannell is also more of a classic distance runner and Cox said the three freshmen – Danis, Laskowsky and Meg Scannell – are probably cut from that distance mold as well, but it’s still too early tell.

What Cox does know about those freshmen is that they’re all smart. They’ve adjusted to the added distance, commitment and competition at the high school level. They’ve gone from following Carney and Parker early in the season to making their own decisions on the course in the second half of the schedule. And that development has given Coe-Brown the depth that makes this team truly special.

While Parker won the D-II meet, Carney didn’t have her best day (she was still ninth), but the Bears managed to dominate as Danis took third, Katie Scannell seventh and Laskowsky ninth. At the MOC the next week, both Parker (13th) and Carney (41st) had a stomach virus, but once again Coe-Brown’s depth and pack running prevailed, led by Danis (fourth), Katie Scannell (10th) and Laskowsky (11th).

“The sign of a great team is when you have a couple racers who don’t feel fantastic, especially when they’re your two best kids, and the next three or four step up and run well,” Cox said. “That’s sort of the story of our season.”

The final chapter of that story, and maybe the final two, have yet to be written. Depending on how they fare Saturday in Maine, the Bears may take their talents to the regional championships in New York in two weeks. But that decision can wait. For now, Coe-Brown is focused on taking another giant leap forward as a program at the New England meet, and, perhaps more importantly, having fun while doing it.

“We felt like they really didn’t enjoy the last couple of weekends like they should have. They didn’t embrace the sport and what they were accomplishing enough,” Cox said. “So on Saturday we want them to embrace it and just have a blast.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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