Deep Howland team hopes togetherness leads to success

Special to Tribune Chronicle The Howland girls cross country team, coached by Robin Kapalko, far left, finished second on Saturday at the Billy Goat Challenge in McDonald.

Sophomore Molly Yasnowski was running side-by-side with senior Jenna Craigo Saturday on the tight, winding cross country course at Woodland Park in McDonald.

Yasnowski talked to her Howland girls cross country teammate. Traveling 3.1 miles among flocks of competitors can be daunting. These Tigers make sure they are vocal and run as a team.

It led to a second-place finish in the annual Billy Goat Classic.

Almost a year ago, Craigo felt aches and pains with each step. During the summer of 2017, she knew something was amiss.

The immune system attacked the thyroid, which led to a lack of hormones and controlled the metabolism. She lost 15 pounds. For a cross country runner, that’s a drastic shift in weight. Craigo had Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

She couldn’t sleep and fatigue was ravaging her body.

Craigo’s passion for cross country grew prior to the 2017 season. Mentally, she was one of the best runners in the area. Physically, it was near next to impossible. The disease made her a shell of herself even though she continued to fight through.

“Emotionally it throws you up and down because of hormones,” Craigo said. “There was a lot to take, especially as a 16-year-old girl.”

Near the end of the season she suffered a severe ankle sprain. Her track season ended. It turned out to be a blessing as she could concentrate on physical therapy, gain weight and recover.

This summer, she was back to her old self. Her teammates followed suit.

Howland coach Robin Kapalko wants her senior runner to find her mojo on each and every course after the horrors of 2017.

“I tell her there has to be justice this year for you,” Kapalko said.

Saturday’s performance was years in the making.

Kapalko is in her third year as the Howland girls varsity coach. Prior to that, she was the Tigers’ junior high coach.

Her varsity team has one of the best showing in years ? 20 runners. Depth is not an issue.

Kapalko is a middle school physical education teacher. That provides her a recruiting stake for those Howland students.

She has a list at the beginning of the year of who are prospective cross country runners. Even if they don’t come to an end-of-season meeting, she keeps hounding those athletes to come out for the sport.

The last two years she’s had a month-long program in which children in grades four through six run three days a week and have a meet at the end.

It’s one of the things Howland’s program does to create consistency all the way up to the varsity level — one of the hooks Kapalko uses to get people in the Tigers program.

“We’re all under the tent together,” Kapalko said. “We set up camp together. We ride the same bus to the meets. The varsity is the example for the younger kids.”

That togetherness is on the course.

Kapalko, who was one of the best distance runners ever at Howland, learned running in packs is the way to succeed. Maplewood and McDonald teams led by Ted and Chris Rupe have used that concept, like most successful teams, to win state championships. Ted retired as coach in 2011, but continues to be part of the distance community, timing many meets and road races around the area.

“I’m not going to lie, I was a Rupe junkie when I was in high school,” Kapalko said. “I went to Rupe camps, as many weeks as I could get there. Not going to lie, I was a product of the Rupes. That probably has a hand in it.

“(Monday), we recapped what happened at the meet. If there was one thing that I was most proud of them was the fact that they ran as a team.”

Maria Dellimuti, who advanced to the state meet last year, was the team’s fifth runner on Saturday. She’s coming off an injury, but this is a strong, deep Howland team.

“When somebody doesn’t have that great race, there’s always somebody to step in,” Kapalko said.

It’s a Howland team which isn’t about to take no for an answer. They beat out a McDonald team on Saturday which seemed untouchable in past years.

“Our competitiveness, it speaks for itself,” Craigo said. “Not only will we see a team that we know is a powerhouse. Can we beat them? Let’s go for it. Let’s surprise ourselves.

“Beating McDonald was a surprise for us. We’ve seen them as a the powerhouse of Trumbull County.”

Kapalko was beaming after Saturday’s meet, not only for Craigo’s return, but for a team which has had so many setbacks these past years. They needed this boost in a sport Kapalko dearly loves.

“It’s such a positive sport,” she said. “You can still be successful even if you’re that last kid out there. I’m very passionate about it. I had this warm and fuzzy feeling Saturday in my heart. Yes, it’s so early. I can’t jinx them. I can’t talk about it.

“This is something I’ve wanted forever. Okay. Maybe we’re on the right track?”

The Howland Tigers certainly hope so.