By Jim Sullivan Correspondent
Newburyport Daily News
---- — They’re a bit ... different. But they make it happen, time and time again.
Whether that difference, a singular sense of humor that straddles the fence between goofy and certifiably insane, is what has kept the Newburyport boys cross-country team so successful over the past few years, no one seems able to say.
But what cannot be denied is that this group of runners has known nothing but success, having just taken its second Eastern Mass. Division 5 Championship in a row Saturday. The Clippers are headed for the Mass. All-State Championships once again this weekend.
“We’ve always tried to keep things enjoyable,” Clippers coach Don Hennigar says of both his boys and girls cross country teams. “Because it’s a hard sport. There’s nothing easy about it. To have a balance of being able to enjoy the time when you’re not running and working hard when you are running, it’s worked out well through the years.”
Very well, as the boys are coming off their second consecutive undefeated regular season and are heading to their seventh states in as many years.
“It’s like a job,” says Hennigar. “If you hate your job, you’re not going to do a very good job. If you like coming to practice, then you’re going to do a better job at it.”
Hennigar says that the team’s sense of humor has always grown from the leadership, and no leader has seemed to have left such an indelible mark on the team’s psyche than last year’s captain, Keith Conway.
“Keith was my mentor,” junior Chris Orlando says of Conway. “When I was a sophomore, we’d go on runs all the time. And he gave me the weirdness that he had (so) I would carry it on. He is the sun, and I am the planet that revolves around him.”
“(Conway) was fun as a captain,” agrees Orlando’s fellow junior Max Vye. “And that’s kind of what you look for — someone who is going to be fun, but push you to do your best. That’s what he did. He’d tell some jokes that weren’t funny, but when he’d tell them, you’d laugh because he had that presence. And we have that with Joe here.”
Senior co-captain Joe Santo understands what Conway was trying to do.
“We make a not very enjoyable sport fun,” says Santo. “No one wants to go out and kill themselves on runs every day. But we try and make it fun. I think you have to with a sport like this. We stay loose and win.”
Just now being baptized into this mix of personalities is the Clippers’ latest freshman standout, Joe Molvar, who comes to the team from a home-schooled environment and says his teammates have gone out of their way to let him know that he fits right in.
“I think we’re just a bunch of weirdos coming together,” says Molvar. “And this is what comes (of that).”
Getting ready to wrap up his sophomore cross-country season, Gabe Ficht knows what Molvar has had to face coming into this group.
“The middle school team wasn’t nearly as weird,” Ficht says with a big grin. “So I kind of got into the environment and just got weirder and weirder as each day passed. It kind of got to me. Now, I’m weird.”
All kidding aside, Hennigar says his team knows when to stop joking and get down to business.
“They get the balance of when it is time to be loose and have fun,” says Hennigar. “And when it is time to race, it is time to race.”
With their bedroom walls adorned with plaques and undoubtedly more on the way, each one of these runners is just happy to have a place to call home.
“If this team was full of awkward people that didn’t tell jokes, I wouldn’t do it,” says Vye. “I would have quit my freshman year. But we’re fun.”