Woonsocket Youth Are Going the New England Distance

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Back in June 2012, we introduced the community-minded, professional running group New England Distance Project to HepsNation.  At the time, the Project co-founder, Nich Haber, had this to say about the goals of the Providence-based program:

“We view this program as a fellowship. Athletes are able to train to be the best they possibly can be. When their window of opportunity as an athlete is over, we are hoping that their time working with the children of Woonsocket [R.I.] will be a benefit to them in their athletic career.”

Now, over two years into this program’s existence, the aim of the program is becoming a reality.

This fall season, Rhode Island’s Woonsocket Middle School entered their cross country teams into local junior high competition for the first time since 2009.  The teams were originally disbanded due to school budget cuts, but the teams were brought back this season with the help of NE Distance, Performance Physical Therapy of Rhode Island, the Woonsocket Education Department, and the late Woonsocket school district athletic director George Nasuti.

Nasuti reached out to the NE Distance Project in 2013 to see if the group would be interested in coaching the then-defunct cross country teams.  At that time, NE Distance athletes participated in a number of after-school athletic programs at the middle school.  Nasuti was a long-time supporter of youth athletics in his community, but he recognized that help from outside of the school administration would be needed in order to get this team active again.  NE Distance was supportive of the idea and could provide their athletes to serve as the team coaches; however, additional funding would be needed in order to cover the team costs and additional income for the coaches themselves.

This funding situation was solved by the Performance Physical Therapy of Rhode Island, the largest physical therapy group in the state.  Brian Hay, the Director of Programs for the practice, figured that funding a local youth running group, such as the middle school cross country team, would be a great way to expand their practice’s marketing as the group wanted to increase their community involvement. 

“We [were] just opening up a new center in Woonsocket and thought that this would be the best way for us to try to connect with the community. We are extremely happy to be able to bring all of these pieces together and restart this popular program” Hay shared on their practice’s website.

Unfortunately, Nasuti would not be alive to hear the news, as he passed away this past February due to a falling accident while he officiated a youth basketball game.

With the money secured, it was announced this in April 2014 that Woonsocket would be restarting their middle school cross country program, using the NE Distance Project athletes as the team coaches: Lara Crawford (an Olympic Trials qualifier in the 10km, who competed for the University of Nebraska and Shippensburg University), David Goodman (a two-time USATF Nationals qualifier in the steeplechase who was a NCAA DII steeplechase champion from Western State College of Colorado), Katie Spratford (a 5km/10km distance runner who competed for Shippensburg University), and our HepsNation-own Henry Sterling (a 2014 Dartmouth grad who was an All-Ivy steeplechaser and distance medley relay team member).  Sterling joined NE Distance Project this past summer and is enjoying his experience so far with both the training group (where he is being coached by Bob Rothenberg, former head coach of the Brown cross country and track programs) and being a youth coach.

“I am interested in teaching so I wanted to pursue my running dream. Luckily I read what they have to offer. It’s exactly what I wanted. The ability to give back to the community, to do something that is close to teaching and also running professionally in New England. It’s great,” he shared with RI.milesplit earlier this month.

Recruiting began in May 2014, where the NE Distance athletes went to each of the middle schools to talk to the kids about the sport and sign kids up.  Over 140 kids initially signed up in the spring, with the kids being initially excited on having professional runners serve as their coaches and mentors.  Not all 140 kids showed up to the first practices in August – Sterling recalled initial concern among the coaches when only 4 kids showed up for the first day of practice.  Slowly, when word got out about how fun and social the team atmosphere was, as well how the sport was open to everyone and there would not be any cuts, more kids began to show up.  By a month into the season, 50 kids were active runners on the team and a great team mentality and support system had been established.  The middle school group would also travel once a week to the nearby high school to train with the high school team.

Sterling shared that some of the initial challenges that the coaches had to overcome was how to keep the kids focused during practice and stay positive on running for longer distances.  Sterling recalled on how skeptical the kids were of their own fitness when he would point out how the race would be about 6 laps around the outdoor track – the kids did not believe they could run that.  But after finishing a cross country race, the kids realized that the distance was not as difficult or challenging as they initially though it would be.  Ultimately, the coaches learned that the kids LOVED running hill repeats (Sterling joked that he had a team full of sprinters due to their love of those 20-second repeats) and tried to balance out the hill repeats with longer-slower runs in order to build up the kids endurance.

The Woonsocket team hosted three home meets this past season, which provided the team a great way to monitor their progress.  The coaches would note the runner’s improvements and times after each meet on a bulletin board.  Sterling shared that kids had improved their time from 30 seconds to up to 3 minutes on their 1.4-mile home course.  The other benefit of hosting that many home meets, according to Haber, was how many parents were able to attend the meets and cheer their kids on.

Now, if this was some kind of Disney comeback-kid story, the story would end at the state meet with the teams winning the team state titles.  This is not that kind of story.

The Rhode Island middle school state meet was held this past Saturday at the Goddard State Park in Warwick, R.I., which marked the end of the 2014 season.  The Woonsocket teams competed well, considering how it was their first season back in interscholastic competition – out of 31 teams, the boys finished 26th while the girls finished 24th.  Sterling described the state meet has a fun experience where the team made massive improvements, as the race was longer than their usual fare (1.8 mile championship course).  But where the team DID win is in their future.  Due to the positive response from the school and community, funding has been secured to provide a cross country team for the 2015 season.  Also, there is additional discussion is taking place on obtaining funds to support a Woonsocket Middle School outdoor track team for the upcoming 2015 season (both Haber and Sterling feel optimistic on this team becoming a reality).  Haber noted that the community connection with the NE Distance Project is so strong that there are plans for a community party during the 2016 Olympic Trials, where the community could cheer on their NE Distance Project as they race for a possible Olympic spot.

But the continued existence of running teams at the Woonsocket Middle School will continue to depend on funding as there is no extra money available within the school district to support youth sports (in fact, almost all of the middle school sports do their own fundraising to cover their program costs).  If you would like to support the middle school or the NE Distance Project, check out the Project’s website on how to donate and become a shareholder in the Project.

Haber was quoted in April 2014 when it was announced that cross country would be offered for the fall: “This really shows the definition of a community based program.  Everybody involved in it feels like a winner.”  He had no idea on how fortuitous this comment would be.

photo from RI.milesplit, Henry Sterling is in the top left

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