Bellows Falls Union High School has had so many standout cross country and track teams since time began; a championship doesn’t seem to sneak up on anyone these days. Then when the school’s girls’ cross country team captured the annual Connecticut Valley Conference Championship meet earlier this fall, area cross country enthusiasts starting digging. Come to find out, it had been 33 years since such magic had been constructed in the sport at BF. Then thoughts turned to a possible Vermont Division III state title and whether such an accomplishment could be in the cards.
In some ways, this championship even snuck up on a coach. And this is a coach that tries to keep track of everything. This title was in no way predetermined. Three years ago, Coach Tim Eno had no idea what was about to explode. At the time, he was just thankful he had Lia Clark on board as a freshman runner. He had a female talent to work with. The cupboard was so bare that a competitive team could have been a dream, but it was an incredibly far-fetched dream.
Clark looks back to that time and tells me, “My freshman year, I was just excited to come and run with Mr. Eno. I was a bit disappointed that I was the only girl. Then my sophomore year, I was the only girl again.”
Eno dishes out loads of credit to Clark who not only performed on the hills and the dales of Vermont but went way beyond the competition during her career. The coach paints the picture of a determined runner but also of a student athlete who became tired of running alone and reached out and made a team. Eventually, with a little bit of luck, that team evolved into a state championship running unit.
The coach said,”Lia is a go-getter. She went out and talked to a lot of girls, and some of them switched from other sports. Definitely a lot of the success is because of Lia.”
Clark quickly interrupted her coach to include “And because of Mr. Eno’s coaching.”
Eno just as quickly gave a counter verbal punch by saying, “It wasn’t Coach Eno who built this team. Without what Lia did getting a team together, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Clark explained, “Last year, I encouraged enough to have numbers to have a full team at the state meet. Then this year, we had about ten girls and that was pretty amazing. This year, we qualified as a team for the New Englands and we have never done that before, and on the way we ended up winning the State Division III meet.”
The senior captain stood tall throughout the process. A process that saw a talented group of runners arrive almost in a storm of dust this fall to develop, according to their coach, “a camaraderie, a team unity that sparked us along the way.”
The team schedule had several challenges, and this group of girls tackled each and every one they could, except one. Kind of, that is.
Eno gives his athletes days off, just like Alex Cora does. The BF girls won every competition they were at 100 percent in attendance, except the Thetford Invitational, known by many as the Woods Run. About 50 schools from all over the East gather for that one. Winning was not an option, even for a team that was this good. Bellows Falls also fell short in two of the weekly Marble Valley League races when a runner or two was left at home to prepare for the long run.
Back to Clark, who finished tenth in the Vermont state meet her freshman year, 15th in her sophomore state run, and fifth a year ago. There were no underclassmen ahead of her last year, thus when night fell on the day of last year’s race, Clark had hoped to finish even higher in her senior year. That is not the way history played out, but the student athlete said she acquired much more than that vision.
“I know I have improved a lot since my freshman year, but I’m mostly just glad because we have a team.”
The explosion on the scene, known as her teammates, took up three of those top spots as Clark ran basically the same time she had run one year before. To be exact, she was two seconds faster, but more athletes shot past the number on the clock.
Clark was candid when she said, “Of course I was bummed for myself, but I was more focused on everyone else having a good race and our team winning because that’s what mattered. Our top runners ran very well all year. They ran a lot faster. Sometimes they would improve in a race by minutes, setting PRs. It was really great seeing people improving that much from the start of the season.”
When discussing her state championship race, Clark said, “I didn’t have my best race.”
But Eno added, “She didn’t have her best race, and I could tell she was upset. I watched her finish, and she went right down to the end of the finish line to cheer on her teammates. I thought that was awesome. It showed some much character. I even get emotional thinking about that. You don’t see that with kids. With Lia, it’s all about team. That says a lot about her as a person.”
As for Clark’s teammates, Abby Broadley was the top dog – Terrier – winning state honors with fellow freshman Stephanie Ager placing fourth – “A really awesome unexpected addition,” Clark said – two seconds ahead of sophomore Abby Dearborn. Can you imagine how those two will push each other over the next two years to be the Terriers’ second Top Dog, or is it possible that one of them could develop enough to push Broadley for the team’s top rung on the ladder?
Broadley had drawn national attention, so Eno and Clark knew they had something coming to help there. But Ager’s transfer to Bellows Falls, along with Dearborn’s decision to add cross country to her track success, gave Clark not just three teammates but three who came along with that little something extra: talent similar to Clark’s. This may have challenged the senior’s sights at the top of the Division III individual race, but it landed all of them at the tip-top of the team race.
Clark remembers well the growth of teammate Dearborn and this was just one example of how this special group came together. Clark looks back and says, “Her first race she was like way behind. I think she just needed to gain confidence and learn the best strategy. She learned quickly and, as you know, ran very well.”
Clark also gave a shout out to her teammates, especially her senior classmates. “They definitely all improved. There were big PRs this year for all of them.”
Behind Clark in the state meet came three more Terriers, in the top 26 finishing spots. Only 37 seconds separated sophomore Molly Hodsden (21st) and seniors Jasmine Boucher (23rd) and Haley Covillion (26th).
Clark’s excitement was at a high level considering the team had ten runners who could enjoy this title. Senior Brigid Hodsden, freshman Shelby Stoodley, and sophomore Emma Perkins rounded out this championship roster.
Clark was the most energized in the interview when she spoke of her team as a whole. She said, “Cross country is a team sport. It is really important for everyone to work together; and even if someone is not scoring, their placement is very important because it drops runners from other teams back.”
This title may not have been long in the planning stages, so maybe in the end, it might have been a little extra sweet.