NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

March 10, 2014

Breathing easy

Merrimac native Kitsakos has found her niche in the 400-meter dash

By Chris O'Donnell
Correspondent

---- — The best part about Alexis Kitsakos’ indoor track and field season at UMass Lowell wasn’t winning the America East Conference championships in the 400-meter dash and the 4x400 meter relay.

The highlight of her junior year? “I haven’t had to use my inhaler,” the Merrimac native said.

Kitsakos contracted mononucleosis her sophomore year at Pentucket Regional High School, and it was so bad that she developed asthma and a slew of allergies. Asthma doesn’t jive with sprinters, and the allergies don’t help when you’re competing in the spring.

But, ailments and all, Kitsakos is enjoying an indoor season for the ages evidenced by said titles and results she never dreamed of.

“My times, especially in the last two weeks, have been dropping,” Kitsakos said. “It’s amazing me.”

Following last season, Gary Gardner, the head coach at UMass Lowell, and assistant Mike Ekstrand, who coaches the River Hawk sprinters, adjusted Kitsakos’ summer training program. Instead of short sprints, they had Kitsakos do more distance and endurance training.

As part of her workouts, Kitsakos would run continuous loops of 800-meters under three minutes, 1,200-meters within five minutes and a mile under seven minutes. Gardner is a huge advocate of rest and allowing one’s body to heal. But on her days off, Kitsakos would sneak a 20-minute run.

The proof is in the results of what has been a breakout season. Having competed her freshman and sophomore seasons with solid results, Kitsakos is now winning trophies.

“Doing more distance training has definitely helped me,” Kitsakos said. “I definitely trained harder than ever last summer.”

Last year, Kitsakos peaked in the 400-meters with a time of 58.64 seconds. Last weekend at the New England Championship, she ran 56.09, her personal best. The improvement is not lost on her coaches.

“Lexi made that commitment that she wanted to be good. And once one of our kids makes that decision, Mike works his magic,” Gardner said, referencing Ekstrand, who is regarded as the best sprinting coach in New England. “Lexi stayed in Lowell last summer. She was always around, in the weight room and out on the track. She had very little distraction.”

Kitsakos captured the 400-meter dash at the America East Conference Championship on Feb. 24. She emerged from a second-place showing in the preliminary and a time of 56.75 to win the title in 56.56 seconds.

She also ran the leadoff leg on UMass Lowell’s 4x400 meter relay team which captured the championship in 3:47.96. The River Hawks, in their first season as a Division I school, placed sixth among nine teams. Kitsakos is at her peak heading into her last meet of the season – the ECAC/IC4A Championship. Last week, Kitsakos placed sixth in the 400-meter dash at the New England Championship in a personal-best 56.09 seconds. She earned All-New England status, which she hadn’t planned on.

“I went into the meet not knowing if I was going to place,” she said. “I was going for a PR. Placing was just icing on the cake.”

Kitsakos’ success in the 400-meters is more impressive considering she had never run it at Pentucket. She was unable, due to asthma. “I would get asthma attacks after the 200, so the 400 wasn’t an option,” she said. “My asthma definitely pushed me though. If I didn’t have an asthma attack after the 200, I felt I didn’t run hard enough.”

Kitsakos won the state championship in the high jump as a senior, which is a story in itself. The 200-meters and the high jump were running simultaneously. She placed fourth in 26.23 seconds, asthma attack and all.

Still wheezing, Kitsakos was told by a brusque meet official she had five minutes until her first jump or face disqualification. Unbeknownst to her, Sachems head coach Steve Derro had the high jump officials adjust the bar from the starting height of 4 feet 10 inches to 5 feet 2 inches, so she would use as few attempts as needed. Kitsakos cleared it, and then cleared 5 feet 2.25 inches to win the title and set a school record.

Heading into the outdoor season, which begins March 22 at the Coastal Carolina Shamrock Invitational, Kitsakos is reborn and thinking big things.

“I’m hoping to run 55 seconds (in the 400),” she said. “I’ve already run 55 in a relay, so I know I can do it. It’s just a matter of doing it in an open race.”

McNamara, Moore Earn Little East Conference Honors

Erin McNamara (West Newbury), a senior guard at Southern Maine, was named to the Little East Conference First Team while Alex Moore (West Newbury), a freshman guard at Rhode Island College, was named to the Conference All-Rookie Team. McNamara led Southern Maine to a 20-8 record, including a 10-4 clip in the Little East, averaging 13.8 points and 3.2 assists per game while shooting .837 from the free throw line and .375 from 3-point range. Moore has registered 7.7 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 30.5 minutes per game. Moore’s Anchorwomen defeated McNamara’s Southern Maine in the Little East Tournament championship game on Mar. 1, 64-59. Rhode Island met Haverford in the NCAA Tournament first round Friday at Ithaca College.

Georgetown’s Gibb, Pingree Making Sudden Impact

Kathryn Gibb (Georgetown), a freshman on the UMass Dartmouth lacrosse team, has compiled four goals and one assist in her first two matches. Gibb scored two goals in her first collegiate game, a 20-16 win over Smith College; and two goals and one assist in a 17-16 overtime loss to Mount Ida College…Kristen Pingree (Georgetown), a junior on the Roger Williams lacrosse team, also has four goals to start the season. She scored one in the Hawks’ 18-5 loss to Springfield and scored three in an 11-10 loss at Wheaton…Freshman Kristin Fitzgerald (Groveland) scored her first collegiate goal in Gordon College’s 15-5 win over Salem State midweek while senior Stephanie Fitzgerald (Groveland) dished out two a assists…Sophomore Dominic Rovetto (Newbury), a sophomore goalie on the Salem State lacrosse team, stopped eight of 11 shots in a season-opening 11-6 win over St. Joseph’s. He also had eight saves in a 12-8 loss at Mount Ida…Alex Fiorito (Newburyport) has eight ground balls in Salem State’s first two games.

Murphy, Little Shine at New England Championship

Taelour Murphy (Salisbury), a junior sprinter at UMass Lowell, won the 200-meters and shattered the school record twice at the New England Championship last weekend. She won the preliminary in 23.95 seconds and the final with a time of 23.71...Ashante Little (Seabrook), a senior on the Wheaton track and field team, was named the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) Athlete of the Week for the third straight week. Little placed seventh in the 200-meter dash to earn All-New England honors at the New England Championship and shattered the school record with a time of 24.67 seconds.