Girls Track Team Carries On A Tradition of Success
Despite challenges, Redmen just keep on winning.
Coaches and sportswriters love to talk about over-achievers so forgive me if I kill part of a snowed-in Wednesday rambling on about the Tewksbury High girls track program for a while.
Why do I refer to the TMHS tracksters as over-achievers?
For openers, Tewksbury's female runners represent the second smallest student enrollment in the Merrimack Valley Conference. On top of that, their facility is, by far, the worst in the MVC.
Actually, I probably shouldn't even use the word facility. In the winter, the team trains by running through the halls of the high school (cue the John Mayer music here). Never mind not having an indoor track like many of their competitors have, the Tewksbury indoor track teams don't even get to use the school's dingy little gym. Which is probably a good thing. Shot put practice in a crowded, dimly lit gym probably doesn't end well.
But somehow, in spite of many challenges, coaches John Byrnes and Peter Molloy have strung together back-to-back undefeated seasons and seven straight MVC Division 2 championships in winter track. While other coaches are worrying (and rightfully so) about how Tewksbury is over-matched in the MVC competing against schools two and three times their size, all Byrnes and Molloy do is put winners on the track, year in and year out.
Since taking over the program seven years ago, Byrnes and Molloy have won every championship, gone undefeated five out of the seven years and compiled a remarkable 43-2-2 dual meet record.
One reason for their success is that numbers aren't as big a problem for girls track as they are for other sports. Byrnes and Molloy are simply great (if subtle) recruiters. Their recipe is simple. They welcome all comers and they treat everyone as if she were the only kid on the team.
Senior speedster Ally Greene, who was the team's top point scorer in dual meets this winter, remembers being apprehensive about joining the team as a sophomore.
"I was really kinda nervous about fitting in," Greene said. "But the coaches made me feel like I was part of the team from the first day. Everybody gets along with everybody. By the end of the season I was friends with kids I didn't think I'd ever even talk to before track."
The coaches had a lot to do with that, Greene said.
"They treat everybody the same," Greene said. "There's really no freshmen or JV or varsity. Everybody is just in one big group and the coaches make everybody feel like they belong.
"To them, it doesn't just have to do with skill," Greene added. "They really just want to see everyone get better. They don't think they're doing their job if they don't help the slowest kid PR (set a personal record)."
Officially, Molloy is the head coach in the winter, Byrnes is the head coach in the spring. In reality, they work as co-coaches.
Byrnes wanders around the meets with an ever-present grin on his face. Molloy is even more animated. By his own admission, he'll scream just as loudly for a kid to break seven minutes in the mile as he will for a kid who's competing for a state championship.
The coaches also do a great job of getting Tewksbury youngsters interested in track long before they get to high school. In conjunction with Tewksbury Community Services, they run a summer track camp that introduces hundreds of Tewksbury kids to the sport while they are still in elementary school.
On Thursday nights in the summer, in conjunction with former runner Christine Stone, they run an open invitation track meet for area youngsters at the high school. Any runner, regardless of school affiliation, is invited to participate.
Assistant coach Carol Navetta helped revitalize the Tewksbury running club a couple of years back and that has evolved into a junior high cross country program at the Wynn Middle School.
With all of these developmental programs, Byrnes and Molloy are really just carrying a torch lit by former girls coach Bob MacDougall and current boys coach Steve Levine.
"I think the environment for success was created many years ago by coach MacDougall," said Nancy Toland, who is the mother of two of the best female runners in Tewksbury history. Nancy's eldest daughter, Andrea Toland, was a standout middle distance runner a decade ago and she still holds the school record in the 600 meter run. Younger sister Ashley Toland, a senior this year, ran a leg on the New England championship 4x400 relay team last spring and is only 0.2 seconds away from breaking her sister's school record in the 600.
"They had great teams back when Andrea ran, too," Toland said. "Andrea's teams went undefeated for four straight years. I think the coaches we have now have done a good job of bringing along the traditions MacDougall and Levine started."
Levine, the ageless TMHS coaching icon who is threatening to retire in June, certainly deserves some of the credit for the success of the girls team. As do assistant coaches Navetta, Billy Meuse and Peter Fortunato. With the exception of Levine, who carries an AARP card but looks at least 15 years younger than his age, and shot put coach Jim Burgoyne, this group of coaches could all pass for students if they weren't carrying clipboards and stop watches at the meets.
"They're like kids themselves," Greene said of her coaches. "They like to goof off and pick on you, but in a good way. When they need to be tough on you they can be, but when you're having a rough day they'll just tease you and make you smile and take you right out of it.
"It's easy to relate to them," Greene added. "They always want to goof around and talk to you."
Welcoming anyone and everyone who is interested in the sport is one way Byrnes and Molloy have built the depth that allows a team to put together long win streaks. Senior All-American Leanne Tucker has been sidelined with a leg injury all winter long, yet the team still won without her. Distance specialist Laura Patriarca and sprinter Heather Carroll have also missed significant time with injuries, yet the team hasn't missed a beat.
Christina Dick and Emily Parker have stepped up in the mile and two-mile. Sarah Hogan came over from basketball and has run well in the 300 and 600. Nicole McKenna has emerged in the 1,000, making up for the loss of Tucker.
Jackie Giasullo, who spent the last couple of winters dancing around in a cheerleader's uniform, opted to run track this year. She's filled in for Tucker on the 4x400 relay team that's still one of the best in the state.
Now that's when you know you're on a popular team -- when the cheerleaders want to be like you.
"It helps when you have almost 20 percent of the student body participating in your sport," Molloy said recently, noting that almost 90 girls signed up for track this winter.
"A lot of it has to do with the coaches we replaced, too," Molloy added. "Bob MacDougall and (long time assistant coach) Jen Brooks built a tradition of success and track acceptance in this town. We've tried to keep that going."
So far, so good.