By Dan Plouffe
They didn’t exactly have a ton of hardware to bring home, but the Glebe Gryphons nevertheless left the Nov. 2 OFSAA Championships in Sudbury as the province’s top cross-country running program.
After six races (novice, junior and senior girls and boys), Glebe won the overall team points chase 61-60 over St. Catharines’ Sir Winston Churchill Secondary.
It was a special achievement for the group because every single runner’s performance is so crucial to a one-point victory, underlines Gryphons coach Kirk Dillabaugh, saluting several athletes who initially weren’t sure they could make it to OFSAA due to commitments in other sports, but ultimately made the trek.
“The key to our success is the depth, and we couldn’t have done it without them,” highlights Dillabaugh. “It’s always exciting to have the hard work you’ve put in rewarded, but what’s really fulfilling for us is we’re there competing for that overall title every single year now.”
It’s not unusual for a school to have a strong crop within a four-year cycle of athletes, but Glebe has maintained its spot near the top since its first overall crown in 2012.
“We’re always in the hunt. We have that consistency year after year, even after cohorts have graduated,” Dillabaugh explains. “That brings us a big sense of pride.”
Though the “grand aggregate” is no longer officially awarded (OFSAA now sticks to boys’ and girls’ aggregates), it’s certainly a competition that top schools track, and it’s gone Glebe’s way 3 of the past 4 years.
But the 2019 Gryphons lineup didn’t carry quite the same star power as past Glebe squads, though they did record four individual top-10s – Cara MacDonald (7th, junior girls), novice girls teammates Caitlin Gormley (8th) and Zoe Wojtyk (9th), and Adam Sanger (7th senior boys), who finished just behind Ridgemont’s Joe Fast in 5th.
Since each school’s top-4 runners’ placings are added together to produce a team score, this was a title won on the backs of athletes who finished around the 100th-place mark.
“That’s one of the things I love so much about cross-country running,” Dillabaugh notes. “Sure the top runners are getting accolades all year, but when it gets to OFSAA, it’s that third and fourth runner that really, really makes the difference.
“They’re the swing. Because that first runner, whether they have a good race or a poor race, they’re probably only going to make a difference of 4 or 5 or maybe 10 points. But that fourth runner, a great race or a poor race could make a difference of 30 or 40 points, which is all the difference in the world.
“I hope that the fourth runners are the ones who really appreciate the impact they’ve had on the team performance. They’ve earned it.”
The frigid weather was not pretty in Sudbury, but that suited the team of Gryphons grinders just fine.
“And about half of them are nordic skiers,” Dillabaugh adds. “They love that stuff.”
That’s exactly what senior boys’ runner Callum Saravanamuttoo realized after many Gryphons were initially “freaked out” by the “ton of snow on the ground,” and the “super cold and wet” conditions, he recalls.
“I was kind of thinking in the back of my mind, ‘Hey, maybe this will help me,’” says the Nakkertok Nordic skier who came up with a huge career-best OFSAA performance. “Everything went my way that day. It was great.”
Though they didn’t know how tight the overall race was at the time, the Glebe senior boys’ silver medal team performance (the lone local podium) was the essential piece to the championship.
In the previous race, the 5th-place Gryphons senior girls were edged out of an exceptionally close battle at the top (Glebe was bested by Sir Winston Churchill by a 3-point margin – 258 to 261 – for 4th, and finished just 9 points out of 2nd, 30 away from gold).
But the Gryphons squad of Sanger, Saravanamuttoo, Sebastien Cino, Owen Pensom and Ben Rundle finished critical one spot ahead of Sir Winston Churchill in the senior boys’ competition to deliver the overall prize.
“As soon as we crossed the line, we all hugged each other,” Saravanamuttoo recounts. “We’d all raced really well. We knew we’d get a medal, we just weren’t sure which one.”
Saravanamuttoo’s progression “skyrocketed” (in the words of his coach) in his senior year. He’d placed 60th at OFSAA as a novice, failed to qualify for provincials as junior (45 seconds out), and finished 69th as a first-year senior last season before climbing way up to 14th this year.
He’d been focused on cross-country skiing as his main sport earlier in high school, but stepped up his mileage this fall and joined the Ottawa Lions Track-and-Field Club full-time, working out alongside Fast and Sanger instead of on his own.
“That’s really helped me get to the next level,” signals Saravanamuttoo, who’s now eyeing a university running career. “I think I still have a lot more potential in the sport.”
Lions disappointed with 5th at nationals
Competing for the Lions later at the Canadian Cross-Country Running Championships on Nov. 30 in Abbotsford, B.C., Saravanamuttoo finished as the top local high schooler (26th place) in the under-20 men’s race.
Individual bronze medallist Kevin Robertson, a first-year Syracuse University student, led the Lions to a 5th-place team finish.
“We all felt we could have raced a little bit better,” states Saravanamuttoo, whose squad was 15 points shy of a medal and 21 away from the gold. “We really wanted a medal and we thought we were capable of doing it. It’s a little disappointing, but we’re all eligible to race the U20 race again next year, so we’re going to come back stronger.”