Saturday is looking like a primo day for a run – mid 50s, sun and clouds, no rain, winds of 1 mph – and hopefully no mud.
The Blackbirds have been eying a Division I state title ever since they crossed the finish line a year ago as mud-splattered runners-up to Concord High. Every Keene runner fell on the hilly, slippery 3.1-mile course at Derryfield Park in Manchester, the annual site of the division meets. Perhaps most of bloodied of all was Jake Velazquez, who was leading the race by eight seconds with about a mile to go when he went down trying to turn a corner at the bottom of a hill.
Bloodied and muddied from head to toe, Velazquez valiantly finished third. “Deep down, I feel like I won,” he would say later. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for me, but it wasn’t my fault. I slipped. Looking at my injuries now, it was sort of spectacular that I got third. But that’s not how it felt at the time.”
Two years ago, as a sophomore, Velazquez broke his hip on the Derryfield course, dropped out of the race and went through several months of rehab.
Thus, he and his teammates have been pointing toward Saturday for a while and have spent this fall trying to peak for the race. They’ve notched numerous accomplishments along the way, including winning the 23-team Amherst (Mass.) Invitational in September, in which Velazquez was runner-up while recording his best-ever time in a 5K race.
Yet a team title requires depth and consistency among all runners, and that’s where the Birds have shone. Torin Kindopp finished third in the Amherst race, Nico Ramirez was sixth, Sergio Sartini 24th and Jonathan Hills, the lowest of Keene’s five placing runners, was still a solid 32nd at 17:15.
Before the season, Coach Dave Goldsmith said a state title, and even a top-five finish in the New England championships in two weeks, were within reach. “Pretty lofty goals, but we’ve been moving in that direction,” said Goldsmith, in his 37th year as coach and before that a standout runner himself at Keene.
The Birds have a rich cross country history, with 14 titles dating back to 1952. Their most recent was in 2003.
The Keene girls have also had a stellar fall that includes a third-place finish at the prestigious Manchester Invitational, held the same day the boys won at Amherst. Mikayla Randall, Sofia Guardiano, Amelia Opsahl, Hannah Shepard and Reagan Hoy have been among Keene’s top runners.
Saturday’s Division I races in Manchester take place in the middle of the day, with the girls running at 11:30 a.m. and the boys at 12:10 p.m. The day begins with the Division II girls and boys meet (10 a.m., 10:40) and wraps up with the Division III girls and boys (1 p.m., 1:40 p.m.).
The annual State Meet of Champions will be held Saturday, Nov. 2, at Mines Falls, on the campus of Nashua South. In Division I, the top seven teams and 30 individuals qualify; in Division II it’s the top six teams and 25 individuals; in Division III it’s the top five teams and 20 individuals.
Football season winding down
This is the penultimate weekend for most high school football teams, with two local squads in line to continue their seasons in the playoffs that start Saturday, Nov. 9.
It’s been an especially feel-good year for Fall Mountain Regional High, which has suffered through many seasons of despair and a playoff drought that goes back to the 1990s. That will change this fall as at 4-2 the Wildcats have qualified for the Division IV playoffs as either the No. 3 or 4 seed. Fall Mountain plays its final home game Friday night against 3-3 Newfound, at 7 p.m. in Langdon.
The Wildcats, under Coach Orion Binney, are on a remarkable run. They have won four in a row after losing their first two games, and they’ve done it like the Patriots – with a suffocating defense. In those four games, they’ve allowed six total points.
The top four teams make the playoffs and the Wildcats are in third, behind undefeated Winnisquam and No. 2 Raymond (5-1), the two teams that beat them in early September. Depending on Friday night, the Cats figure to play one of them on the road in two weeks in the playoff semifinals.
Defending Division III champion Monadnock Regional High is also heading back to the playoffs, though not as the favorite like last year. The Huskies came away with an impressive road win last week, downing Laconia 18-12 to improve to 5-2 on the season. Monadnock and Stevens High of Claremont are tied for the fourth spot, which is significant because the top four teams get home-field advantage in the quarterfinals.
Monadnock has a tough challenge Saturday, as it faces undefeated Campbell High (7-0) at 1:30 p.m. in Litchfield. The Huskies finish up against winless Kearsarge-Mount Royal next week in Swanzey Center. Likewise, Stevens won’t be favored Friday night when it plays 6-1 Trinity High in Manchester, but wraps up its season against Hillsboro-Deering-Hopkinton, which is 4-3 but lost by 32 points to Monadnock.
Keene, seeking its first win, plays 1-6 Winnacunnet Friday night in Hampton before finishing up at home next week against Spaulding. ConVal Regional (1-6) hosts Milford (6-1) Friday night.