* Ridgefield's Steven Hergenrother is the top returner to the Manhattan College Invitational on Saturday
Photo Credit: MileSplit
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"I will say, I think that last K is absolutely perfect."
By Cory Mull - MileSplit
All athlete's can relate to the car ride.
It's often a chance to relax, chill, envision, focus. For Steven Hergenrother, who's the top returning boys athlete entering the Eastern States Championship race on Saturday at the Manhattan College Invitational, it will be all of those things.
He'll hop in the car, put in his AirPods and zone out, listening to the same playlist he has for all of his races. At some point or another, the theme song for Rocky might come on. He might picture that final stretch, the finish line, a potential win. The car will float along Interstate 684 for about an hour before its reaches Van Cortlandt Park.
Then, a couple hours later, he's locked in. Race time.
"I try to approach every race with a fresh mindset," Hergenrother, 17, told MileSplit this week. "Mid-race, I'm not identifying people. I only think about, 'What's best for me? When can I surge?' On Saturday it will be awesome competition. I'm just excited for it, because I know that people will push me to run fast, whether I win or not."
Hergenrother, it should be said, is certainly among the race's favorites.
The Ridgefield (CT) High school senior and Princeton recruit finished fourth last year in 12:30.70, which was fourth-best in Connecticut history at Manhattan, only behind Alex Ostberg (11:57.20), Matthew Farrell (12:18.90) and Eric Van der Els (12:30.30).
Hergenrother isn't necessarily racing with a time in mind.
But he also understands the history at Manhattan: That only two runners in history -- Edward Cheserek and Ostberg -- have broken 12 minutes all-time.
Hergenrother's first objective is to compete, the next is to go for the win, the third ...maybe a new personal best and all that jazz.
This year's race will be packed with talent, including the likes of Jason Parra, Tamrat Gavenas, Joe Barrett and Andrew Thornton-Sherman. But the sneaking suspicion is that Hergenrother is the real deal who hasn't quite gotten his glow-up just yet.
He's the reigning CIAC Divisional champ, the CIAC State Open winner and the runner-up at New Englands. He finished 11th at the Champs Sports Northeast Regional, missing his national qualifier by an agonizing single placement.
But then he split 4:01 on the anchor of the national championship distance medley relay this past June at New Balance Nationals Outdoor, helping Ridgefield to a championship win.
This past Saturday came another big milestone: He dropped his first sub-15 minute race in cross country, clocking a time of 14:52.60 at the Great American Festival.
It all seems to be coming together at the right time.
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"I saw him four minutes after he finished," Ridgefield coach Bryan Kovalsky said. "Physically, he was fine. It feels like he still has some left in the tank."
That fact spelled good news. While Kovalsky is limiting his other varsity runners on Saturday, Hergenrother is full steam ahead.
"I try to give him information (beforehand)," Kovalsky said. "I'd say Steven and a few other athletes thrive off of that information. It's sort of like, pain is information. It's the feedback you're getting in a race. That's sort of how I think he races.
"He's not really obsessive about letting gaps form," Kovalsky added. "He can run his race. That's what I've seen. He calculates it. If I'm 20 meters behind and I have 600 meters to go, he'll figure out how to catch people. It's instinct.
Kovalsky, 44, has coached at Ridgefield for the last 13 years. He graduated in 1997 and ran for the program, claiming a class championship and a couple 1,600m and 3,200m titles in the state. He's seen the best of Ridgefield over the last decade-plus.
This team might be the best he's seen since 2013. That was the last time Ridgefield won a CIAC open title. It finished second at New Englands and was third at NXR Northeast, failing to get an at-large bid to Nike Cross Nationals.
Ridgefield had an eye-opening outing at Great American -- the same race where Hergenrother broke 15 -- with the Connecticut squad finishing second to Miami Belen Jesuit, a team ranked inside the top five nationally. It was the rare case where they flew to a race inside the regular season.
And so the next few weeks will be especially important for Ridgefield to improve its form and work on its racing and plan and strategy. The postseason requires a different mindset.
"It's a little bit different racing in Connecticut and the Northeast," Kovalsky said. "We really don't have race tracks like that. The race was faster than they were accustomed to."
Hergenrother, meanwhile, will need to welcome more of that challenge.
Manhattan should provide ample opportunity. Saturday will mark Hergenrother's third time racing at Van Cortlandt. At this point, he knows everything about the course.
"The hilly loop is very difficult. I'd say there are times when you think that the hills will end. They keep on going," he said. "But I will say, I think that last K is absolutely perfect."
That last moment might be all what Hergenrother has asked for.
A runner with a penchant for last-ditch heroics?
There's no better place for a final sprint than at Manhattan. Hergenrother might even think to himself, 'Gonna fly now.'