By Mike McMahon
---- — Before the season began, head coach Matt Pimentel and the Merrimack College track team set goals for their four-year-old program.
At the top of the list was breaking all of the program’s records, a feat that while practically daunting – the Warriors have 43 separate records in the record book – was started with a bang last week, when the Warriors took second place at the University of Vermont Invitational, finishing ahead of Division 1 Hartford and watching 10 school records crumble in the process.
John Braga (high jump), Sherif Ali (1,000 meter), John Spencer (55-meter hurdles), Bianca Giacalone (300-meter), Zachary Lyons (3,000-meter), Sarah Muolo (55-meter hurdles), Sarah Barnett (shot put), Emily Mauro (pole vault) and Adam Ochab (weight throw) all set new program records.
Perhaps most promising: Of the 10 new school records, seven were set by underclassmen, including five freshmen competing in their first meet.
“We set that goal because we knew we had a lot of talent,” Pimentel said. “To be honest, I can’t sit here and tell you that I thought we would set 10 new records in our first meet of the season. But we definitely feel like we could re-write our record book this year with the new talent we have brought in and all of the returning talent that has continually improved.”
The Warriors are particularly excited about the freshmen class, which is gigantic in numbers. It has 38 total athletes (14 men, 24 women) and boasts some of the best all-around talent the program has brought in during its brief existence.
“With such a big class there is obviously some really good talent in there,” Pimentel said. “We also have great leadership from our returners and as you would expect, some of our best athletes come from our roster of returners.”
Sophomore Noelia Figuereo didn’t set a new program record in the 55-meter dash, but did win the event to qualify for the New England Championships. Her win was one of five event victories for Merrimack.
It was the kickoff to what many feel could be a big statement year for the upstart program, which is just in its fourth year but has had a growing reputation not only among its Division 2 peers, but also in high school circles, where some premier athletes are attracted to the North Andover campus.
“We’ve quickly been able to compete in the NE-10 and that’s a really competitive conference,” Pimentel said. “A lot of the best kids from the area, when it comes to high school athletes, a lot of those best kids are in the NE-10 and in a short amount of time we’ve been able to compete with those programs.
“When we’ve been recruiting, our goal has always been to keep getting better. We tell our athletes that, too. We want them to keep getting better every day. We want to keep getting better every day as coaches and that includes recruiting. Before, where maybe when we were recruiting kids, some didn’t know who Merrimack was or some weren’t aware we had a program. That happens much less now. People know who we are.”
Holding their own against D-1 competition isn’t just a feather in the Warriors’ cap.
“I guess you could say it shows that the gap between us and them isn’t that far,” Pimentel said. “We know how hard they work and I’m amazed every day with how hard our athletes work.”
For many track athletes, the offseason isn’t a reality until the summer.
Most distance runners also run cross country, which this season left just about a week off before winter track season began, and the spring track season begins not long after the indoor schedule ends.
“Conditioning is obviously key,” Pimentel said. “We need to be training year round. We don’t have time to take four or six months between meets, so that means we are always concerned with conditioning. We always need to make sure we’re training right and getting the right nutrition. Even in the summer, for the kids who are also racing cross country, they need to get their miles up to train for that fall cross country season, which really starts only two or three months after school ends.”
Pimentel, who also is an assistant for cross country, hopes the success of this year’s women’s cross country squad, which advanced to Merrimack’s first ever NCAA Championship meet, will carry some momentum into the track season.
“There was little time off for those girls, but at the same time, it was a great experience,” he said. “There is definitely a lot of momentum in the program and our job is to keep that going and keep that moving forward. We had a good start, and now we have a little break before we race again (Jan. 18 at the Tufts Invitational), so it’s important to keep training through the holidays and be ready to go on the 18th, because that’s when it really picks up and we’re going just about every weekend after that.”
LOCAL MERRIMACK TRACK ATHLETES Player Hometown Class Event John Braga North Reading Frosh. Jumps Luis Cruz Lawrence Jr. Distance Gray Howard Salem Jr. Sprints Andrew Zucco Andover Frosh. Mid-Distance Brianna Devereaux Londonderry Sr. Distance Noelia Figuereo Haverhill Jr. Sprints Bethany Labossier Derry Soph. Distance Lauren Witzgall North Reading Soph. Jumps