It's a tight-knit school, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School. The community is small, parents are involved in their kids student-athlete lives, and with a smaller student population compared to most of the other top teams in the country, this team is achieving more than many think they could. Over the past few years few teams have dominated girls cross country like Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake.
In the fall of 2007 the squad took another step forward, qualifying for Nike Team Nationals, with a fifth place finish overall at the national meet despite missing their number two runner. Many speculated that Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake would've placed second had they had their full line-up, as they finished 38 points behind runner-up Saugus (CA).
Regardless, the team now looks forward, hoping to build upon their '07-'08 success with even more success. While no one will admit it, the thought of winning the Nike Cross Nationals title has to be on their minds. A talented trio up top with Sam Roecker, Molly Pezzulo and Meaghan Gregory gives this team a distinct advantage few others teams can match.
This is a season of hard work, challenging oneself to go above and beyond, and most of all having 40 girls coming together to strive towards the same goal. It's something every team tries to do, but only so many actually accomplish it. Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake will strive for greatness and how this journey ends will be something fans of the sport will watch all season long.
A Small School v. Big Schools
Driving into the towns of Burnt Hills and Ballston Lake it is easy to get lost. There are country roads all over, with little signage to indicate where to turn. Pulling up to the school it seems as though you've arrived at an elementary school rather than a high school.
The rise of Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake is a small school v. large school tale. Residing in the small school category in New York state, the school faces competitors with two to three times their student body body population on a regular basis. With just over 1,000 kids in grades 9-12, the task is greater to form a strong team that can run well year after year.
Around the country teams with much larger student bodies tend to dominate the competition, both in-state and nationally. Perennial boys' powerhouse teams of York High School in Illinois and The Woodlands in Texas have student body sizes of 2,500 and 3,800 respectively. Current girls U.S. #1 Saugus High School in California has 2,600 students.
New York power Shenendehowa has 2,000 students, while Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake's biggest rival, Saratoga Springs, which is a mere 20 minute drive down the road, has a school population of nearly 2,200 students.
"The school might be small, but we have some of the best coaches around working here," Zepf explains, "There is a culture here of academic and athletic excellence that starts with the school and extends throughout the community."
Being from a small school doesn't seem to faze the team, if anything it seems to push them. While no one at practice will talk about it, they seem to have the drive of an underdog program. Often overlooked with the success of in-state rivals Fayetteville-Manlius and Saratoga Springs, it may take winning a NXN title for this team to net the respect they so rightly deserve.
Today's workout consists of an up-tempo style workout that runs around the perimeter of the athletic fields. Groups are formed, specific goal ranges are handed out and off the athletes go. The slowest group starts first, then another group a minute later, building up to the top group, which is the duo of nationally elite Sam Roecker and Molly Pezzulo (pictured right to left).
Off the runners go
"In workouts they hurt together and encourage each other to push harder," Zepf says.
Right away Roecker and Pezzulo start passing their teammates, with Zepf trailing closely behind, offering words of encouragement and advice to the top runners and each runner that is passed. This is a "top to bottom" program, where each athlete receives the same treatment, same critique and same encouragement.
Set by set the runners show increasing fatigue, yet their times are remaining consistent despite the 85 degree weather. As one group rolls in to the start/finish area, another group starts on their next repeat. Round and round they go, looking like the strong nucleus this squad's been known for over the past few years.
"It was a tough workout," Pezzulo says afterward, "We haven't done many workouts like this yet."
Roecker echoes a similar response, "This was our first really tough workout and it was hot, but I think we did well."
The summer training is paying off, as the athletes are strong, but need some sharpening. That comes later though. The focus now is to keep pounding out the miles and prepare for the long season ahead.
It's Not About "I"
"It's all about the team," says senior Meaghan Gregory, "I want to improve and stay healthy, but all my goals are geared towards the team."
While many might view Gregory's thoughts as the "politically correct" answer of a top-ranked runner, you can see it in her eyes that she truly means what she says. The team is the focus. She came down with mono last year and wasn't at full strength. In the spring lingering affects of the illness kept her from performing to her absolute best.
Gregory is healthy and running strong, but she has to be careful now not to overstress her body. Today she does a pool workout instead of running the workout with her teammates. As she walks to the pool you can tell by her body language that she'd rather be running, but being sharp in November matters most, most certainly not in early September.
"We miss Meaghan when she can't run with the team," Zepf says, "She's been the backbone of this team since she was in eighth grade. She's the athlete that bought into what I was trying to start five years ago when I first started coaching here. Without her in the mix the team doesn't function the same way."
The absence of Gregory shows the type of team this is. Her teammates missed her when she was out last year with illness and miss her today when she's working hard in another location. Talking with her fellow varsity competitors, each one indicates that it doesn't the same when the squad isn't complete.
"It's nice having Meaghan back. It didn't feel the same when she wasn't here," Roecker explains.
The incomplete feeling the team has when Gregory isn't around carries outside of just the varsity runners. Another girl was gone on vacation for the past week, spending the last remaining days of the summer riding roller coasters at Disney World. This athlete is greeted back right when she walks through the gate to practice. Teammates tell her how much she was missed and how happy they are that she's back.
Repetition after repetition teammates work together to help one another. Encouragement is commonplace. In between reps athletes gather together, trying to motivate each other into pushing just that much harder and staying with the pack.
"We have fun together," says Pezzulo, "We're in this together. The focus in cross country is always the team and I think that makes us strong when it comes to races."
High Expectations and Hard Work
With the last interval complete, the team gathers around Coach Zepf as he talks with them about staying dedicated and doing all the little things right. Each individual listens intently, knowing that their coach's words are not just tips to run faster, but rather life lessons that will help them be successful in the future, regardless of their pursuit.
"Every day of work helps us achieve our goals, but you have to stay hydrated and eat properly," Zepf explains, "Some of you just got back from vacation and it showed today. That's ok, but it's time to get back at it."
With that, the girls break into four groups of ten, each one walking to a certain area and starting an exercise circuit that lasts for nearly another hour. Each group goes through a certain activity for ten minutes. The youngest runners head off to do a cool-down, while the varsity top ten make a circle and start doing a core circuit.
The other two groups do either light weights or another version of the core routine. It's hard to read what makes this team so successful, but this routine could be the key.
The girls laugh and talk about what typical teenagers talk about. School, boys and running dominates the conversation. Yet these athletes are focused. They make sure to do each exercise correctly, helping one another if they aren't executing it just so.
As the practice comes to an end Zepf reiterates that the workout today wasn't an indicator of their fitness. The heat, and the fact that this was their first up-tempo workout of the season, meant that they weren't going to be hitting on all cylinders. It was one day, which adds into a lot of days, each one meaningful but not the end of the world if it isn't perfect.
At Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake it's all about toughness, putting in the work day after day, but most of all it's about unity. Maybe it's their small, tight-knit community that helps them understand this concept better than most. Coming together towards a common goal, bigger than themselves, and only achievable through the support of each other. Improvement as an individual feeds into improvement as a team, and in 2008 that is the motivation for this squad.
MileSplit national editor Scott Bush visited Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake in early September, one day before classes began.