MANCHESTER -- The first- and third-place runners at last week's FCIAC girls cross country championships each left Wickham Park on Saturday at the CIAC class championship meets with an individual title. Staples sophomore Hannah DeBalsi, the conference champion, won Class LL in a time of 17 minutes and 41 seconds over the five-kilometer (3.14 miles) course. Fairfield Warde senior Cate Allen, third at the FCIACs, defended her Class L title from a year ago by winning in 19:13.
Conference team winner Ridgefield was runner-up to Glastonbury in Class LL and qualified for the State Open Friday at Wickham Park as one of the top-two placing teams in each of the six class championship meets. The Tigers will be joined by the four schools that placed right behind them at the FCIACs -- Staples, Wilton, Warde and Darien -- in the State Open field. Also earning a berth as a team is Pomperaug, the runner-up in the SWC championships last week, which tied for second in Class L along with Mercy, both with 101 points. Mercy was awarded second on a tie-breaker -- fastest sixth-place finisher between the two -- but the third-place Panthers from Southbury were one of eight "wild card" teams to join the State Open field of 20 teams.
Wilton won Class L, the Warriors' 11th state championship overall and third in a row, while Staples, Warde and Darien gained entry as wild cards, according to a CIAC official. The top 12 finishers in each class advanced to the State Open, along with every girl whose time on Saturday was 20:57 or faster. Westhill senior Claire Howlett, who was second to DeBalsi in the conference meet in New Canaan on Oct. 17, was runner-up to DeBalsi in Class LL, finishing in 18:03 to qualify for the State Open.
"I'm getting comfortable on the course," said DeBalsi, who has set course records in most of her meets this season. "It's a pretty hard course, with the hills, especially the `Big Green Monster,' " she said about the notorious steep quarter-mile climb ending at the two-mile mark. "I wanted to win, but I didn't want to go all out to save something for the Open."
Howlett said: "I wanted to stay with her as long as I could. She ran hard the whole way. I couldn't stay with her."
Westhill coach Edward A. Lane said their goal for Howlett was to stay with DeBalsi for two miles.
"We figured if she did, she (Howlett) would have more speed (than DeBalsi) at the end," he said.
Staples coach Amanda Parrish, who was on the course, said DeBalsi broke away from Howlett in the second mile. Parrish said DeBalsi is focusing on the elite races (New England championships, national championship qualifying meet, nationals) at the end of the season, in November.
One of Allen's goals was to repeat in Class L.
"We expected her to win," said Warde coach Tim Foster. "She executed what I think was a perfect race strategy for this course -- to race the competition but run a controlled race," he said.
Allen said: "I didn't want to go out as fast as previously. I wanted hopefully to be able to kick at the end and to see how the race was going."