Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Natick Cross-Country Star Grace Connolly Among the Nation's Best

Only a sophomore, Natick’s Grace Connolly is already way ahead of the pack. She won the Bay State Conference Cross-Country Meet (5K) in a PR 17:01, then captured an individual state title on November 19th, and will now finish her season at the Foot Locker Nationals in San Diego.
By Jason Siegel

When people think about Natick High School sports, the first name that usually comes to mind is Flutie. Doug Flutie, the former winner of the Heisman trophy, and Troy Flutie, who set a state record with 47 touchdowns in 2013 as a senior, and led Natick to an appearance in the Division 2A State Super Bowl as a junior in 2012.

Natick’s next great athlete is not named Flutie, however, and comes not from the gridiron, but from the cross-country course.

Only a sophomore, Natick's Grace Connolly currently boasts the 11th-fastest girls high school 5K time in the country (17:01). To put that time into perspective, Connolly is faster than all but three runners on the Natick boys’ cross-country team.

On November 19th, Connolly proved that she is the best female distance runner in the state, winning the All-State meet in a time of 18:27 at a hill-filled course in Gardner. Connolly’s time was a whopping 58 seconds faster than her nearest competition.

Connolly followed her convincing win in the state meet with a 4th-place finish of 18:02 at the Foot Locker Northeast Regional meet in New York. That performance was good enough for Connolly to qualify for the Foot Locker Nationals meet in San Diego.

Even as a freshman, Connolly was an elite runner. She finished 7th overall in the All-State meet and finished 23th out of 216 runners in the NXN Northeast Regional race.

Connolly says that despite winning races by wide margins in middle school, she was not expecting to have the amount of success she did when her freshman cross-country season started.

Connolly, who has been running since she joined her mother on a run at the age of five, joined cross-country because she “thought cross-country would be such a fun thing to participate in.”

However, she did not expect to be her team’s best runner as a freshman, citing a lack of high-intensity training and stronger competition compared to middle school.

Even if she was not expecting to be her team’s best runner, let alone the fastest female high school runner in Massachusetts, Connolly has certainly embraced it.

“I enjoy every moment of (being the team’s best runner),” Connolly said with enthusiasm.

Connolly is not only leading other runners during a race, she is also a leader during practices.

Even though she is only a sophomore, Connolly has taken on a leadership role.

“(I enjoy) being able to help out all of my teammates when needed," Connoly said. “I love being able to give advice on racing, running, and life in general.”

Natick cross-country captain Alexia Kovatsis called Connolly a “natural leader.”

“(Connolly) has always been helpful running practices, and sets a great example of work ethic for every girl on the team,” Kovatsis said.

Grace has brought other attributes to the Natick running program besides her blazing speed, and the extent of her impact is not lost on the team leaders.

“Grace is full of energy, and she will never fail to bring a smile to the girls’ faces with her radiant personality, recognizable laugh, and loud voice,” Kovatsis added.

Challenging workouts and races create shared experiences for teammates, and bring cross-country teams closer together. Teams have more success when runners are pushing each other to improve. Having a runner as talented as Connolly can create a trickle-down effect of motivation and success on the team.

“By having Grace as a role model, the girls are inspired by both her positive attitude and work ethic," Kovatsis said. "A runner that is supportive and fun on the team will always be motivational to other runners around them."

Despite her already impressive track record (no pun intended), Connolly wants to continue to improve. Connolly hopes to be a national champion in both cross-country and track by the end of her senior year.

While Connolly understands that her goals are ambitious, she believes that she has the skills necessary to achieve them.

“I have faith in my training and work ethic that can help me prepare and achieve these goals,” Connolly said.

Overall, Connolly hopes to continue to gain more knowledge about herself and the sport of running.

“I just want to continue to grow and improve as a runner and student of the sport,” Connolly said.

On top of leading the pack, Connolly is excited to continue being a leader of her team in the coming years.

Given Grace’s natural talent and work ethic, the state of Massachusetts should be excited about the prospect of having a potential cross-country national champion.

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