Coming into the final race of the 2009 middle school XC season, the Northern Vermont Athletic Conference Mountain Division Championships last weekend, the Harwood Union Middle School boys' cross country runners knew their dream season was on the line.

Having won all seven previous meets including the major invitationals at Burlington, Thetford, and U32 against teams from large metro Vermont schools as well as from New Hampshire and Massachusetts, it was all coming down to this last meet. 

The boys were the clear favorites coming into the meet, which just meant that other teams would be keying off them in the race. This final showdown of the season took place on Saturday, October 24, at U32 high school. This was the third race of the year for the boys on this course and they knew it well, which they hoped would aid their cause.


The weather was perfect for ducks and XC running with cool temps in the 40s and periods of pouring rain followed by periods of drizzle. As a result of the hard rain the previous night the course was muddy! The conditions at U32 would create new challenges for the boys as they tried to run fast in the slippery conditions. 

The boys' event was scheduled to be first up at 10 a.m., but that was changed to allow the girls to run first. Harwood's dynamic duo of Marika Mayberry and Clio Briggs was reduced to just Briggs for this final event as Mayberry was unfortunately out of town. The boys walked the course and ran on the track with Briggs to help her warm up for her race. Briggs got out to a strong start in the top 15 runners. 

The boys were out on the course cheering her on and encouraging her to move up and Briggs responded working her way closer to the top 10. In the end Briggs ran one of her best races of the season finishing in 9th place. The powerhouse Stowe girls were once again the team to beat with Colleen McGovern taking the individual title in 10:42 and her teammates following in second to fourth places with the fifth runner in eighth place. Needless to say, Stowe won the team competition with an impressive score of 18 points.

As the girls' race concluded, the boys went through their final warm-ups stripping down to their singlets and shorts to minimize the negative effects of racing with soaking wet clothing. As the race was about to start the intensity of the rain increased just to add to the difficult conditions. 

Approaching the first half kilometer as the race made its way out of the open athletic fields and into the woods, the lead runner was not a Highlander but rather Sam Salvas from Stowe well out front and clearly pushing the pace. Harwood Coach Eley seemed a bit concerned to see his runners allowing such a large gap to open up at the head of the race and he implored the boys to close it down before entering the treacherous woods. 

Whether the boys could hear his shouted instructions over the rain and their breathing was unclear, but as they passed the 2k marker Salvas had been overtaken with Caleb Kessler leading the race and Geoffrey Kazlow close behind in second. As the next group of runners came through, seventh-graders Sam Nishi and Jacob Palmerio were in the mix with runners from Stowe, U32, Peoples and Lamoille all fighting for position. 

While the top four Harwood runners were in the final kilometer of the race, the all important fifth runner was still to come. One of the team's greatest strengths this season has been its incredible depth with the boys all working hard to get the lowest team score. This race was not any different with Jack Barnett, Noah Evans, Sam Robinson and Nathaniel Kuzio all coming through close to the top 15. 

With half a kilometer to go, Kessler nearly took a tumble on a slick section of muddy roots as he tried to pick up the pace and extend his lead. Kazlow, seeing this, adjusted his line and speed through the turn to try to avoid a similar fate. Kuzio was not so lucky, taking a fall and losing ground when his group came through. 

As the boys finally made their way out of the woods and into the canyon that starts the final shallow grinding uphill to the finish, it was Kessler in the lead running smoothly and taking the win as well as the NVAC Individual Championship title in 9:18. Kazlow was next out of the woods with a gap, but he was being pursued by a flying Salvas who had not yet given up on the idea of beating him to the line. 

Pushed on by the shouts of the fans, Kazlow had to dig deep just barely holding off the rapidly closing Salvas by a single second with a time of 9:27. Palmerio and Nishi entered the canyon together reeling in two runners from Stowe to claim fourth and fifth places, respectively, in 9:45 and 9:46. 

Now the wait was on to see who and what place Harwood's fifth runner would finish. For a second week in a row it was Evans as the fifth man coming home in 14th place (10:22) followed by Barnett in 16th (10:36) and a recovered but muddy Kuzio in 17th (10:40). Parker Gonnet took 24th in 11:06 and team philosopher Markus Helmken was 28th in 12:02. 

After the team scores were tallied the Highlanders took the win and with it the NVAC Division championship with a score of 23 points over Stowe in second with 34 points and Peoples in third with 77 points. With this final win the team wrapped up an undefeated season, which for the boys and their coach will be fondly remembered for many years to come. 

Coach Eley said, "I am very proud of the hard work and dedication the team put into their running. I really enjoyed watching them develop as athletes and seeing the great camaraderie that was created amongst the team, both boys and girls, during the season. I encourage all the team members to continue to run XC next year in middle school or at the high school, and I hope that they will always remember the pure joy of running through the woods and use the experience as motivation to stay fit and healthy throughout their lives."

Briggs leading several runners from Peoples Academy with 1k to go.

As they approach the first section of woods Kessler and Kazlow chase a streaking Salvas.

Nish in second and Palmerio at the back of the second chase group.

Kessler and Kazlow pulling away from Salvas with 1k to go.

Kessler entering the canyon and driving home for the win.

A very wet but elated middle school XC team after capturing the NVAC Mountain Division Championship. L-R: Palmerio, Briggs, Gonnet, Helmken, Nishi, Kuzio, Kazlow, Robinson, Barnett, Kessler, Evans and Coach Eley (Knelling).