TEWKSBURY – Coming off a 4-6 season, which also saw the Redmen finish eighth out of 11 teams at the Merrimack Valley Conference Championship Meet and then 18th at the Eastern Mass Meet, the Tewksbury Memorial High School Boys Cross-Country team knew heading into this season that most of the runners would be inexperienced since four of the top seven graduated last summer.
That being said and all of the hoopla with COVID, head coach Peter Fortunato is not necessarily worried about times, place finishes and wins. He has a much simpler plan.
"The focus for this season is just going to be the dual meets," he said. "As of now, I believe we are going to have seven dual meets and I don't think there is any plan for us to go to any invitational meets so we will just take it meet by meet.
“The focus honestly is just trying to create an environment where these guys can socialize as much as possible with restrictions in place, hopefully get healthy or stay healthy and just enjoy part of the day. Not to be negative, but clearly nothing is completely normal. If I can create a safe environment where they can get some sense of normalcy, that would be great. That's my hope for the season.
"At the end of the day, we are not competing for a MVC Championship title, we are not competing for an Eastern Mass or All-State title, so hopefully everyone improves, everyone is healthy and everyone enjoys showing up here and they remain safe."
This season is obviously different. The team will compete in seven dual meets, have modifications for each of those meets, while there won't be any post-season meets in November. Fortunato was asked about the new protocols.
"As far as the dual meets are concerned, we are going to be sending guys out in waves," he said. "I believe it's going to be five guys per team, per wave so when we open the season at home against Billerica on Friday, it'll be five Tewksbury guys, then five Billerica guys and then four minutes late five more from each team will go out.
“All of the runners have to wear a mask to the starting line, but once the race begins, as long as they are social distancing, the masks can come down. We will have bibs for the runners instead of using the popsicle sticks, and then the starting line and finish line need to be wider so we will address and fix that. Then you have to do net placing at the end, so it just takes a little bit longer to figure out the results, but Nate Craft from Lowell created a formula which should make things easier for that."
After losing Gustavo Tizzotti – who was 20th overall at the divisional meet – and others, this year's team returns three guys who competed in the MVC Championship varsity race including Zach Connolly, who was 36th at 18:00, Cam Gondola, who was 57th at 19:02 and Joshua Linnehan, who was 67th at 19:40. Those three guys will be in the mix for the top spots this year, as well as Tristan Leslie, who last year was sixth at the Freshmen race at the MVC Meet before making the leap to compete for the varsity team at the divisional meet finishing 146th overall at 18:55.70.
"There's a pretty good split between our guys. Our top returning runners put in a lot of work over the last six months. There's a couple of guys who made a huge jump. The guys who truly enjoy running have gotten significantly better," said Fortunato.
Nick Polimeno and Justin Flynn as well as Kyle Adams and Nick Alvarado also competed at the league championship JV and Freshmen races last year and they return. This year's team only has one newcomer, senior Danny Lightfoot.
"He came over from wrestling. I believe in years past he did football and last year he was unable to because of an injury, but now one of the few pros of all of this is that now he has the chance to try cross-country," said Fortunato. "He's been an awesome addition. He's a real nice guy, a good athlete and I really don't know him besides his background in wrestling, but everything I have seen so far has been great, just absolutely amazing. He is our only newcomer and he's been so great."
Fortunato has high hopes for Lightfoot, who potentially could be in the mix with Connolly, Gondola and Linnehan, and after that could be a mix of different guys.
"Justin Flynn is another senior and he is more of a track guy and he's good to have on the team. Other guys who have made a big jump include Julian Quintal. He has made a big jump. I ran into him over the summer and just the way he talked about running, you could tell that he has completely bought in and he enjoys the training part of it.
"Another jump that we will see is from Nick Alvarado. He has looked fantastic. Another newcomer and I really don't see him as a newcomer because he has done distance running in track is Alek Cranston. He's another guy who should be in the top group. We have a really good top group of six or seven guys. Some of the guys who could make a jump will be Tristan Leslie and Kyle Adams. It's just enjoyable seeing guys who want to be here and who enjoy running."
As for the roster, the seniors include Connolly, Flynn, Gondola, Lightfoot and Linehan. The juniors include Cranston, Tyler Feingold, Jake Pelletier, Polimeno, Quintal and Trevor Trodden, and the sophomore class includes Adams, Alvarado, Cian Dawson, Leslie and Alex Naghibi.
The season will open up on Friday at home at the Livingston Street course against Billerica starting at 4:00 pm. That will be followed by two more home meets against Haverhill and Methuen on the 7th and 14th.