Coming off historic season, McCormick continues to the push the pace

As the defending FCIAC, Class L and State Open champ, Morgan McCormick certainly has a target on her back this season.

The question is whether anybody will get close enough to hit it.

The Wilton High senior continued a dominating fall cross country season on Tuesday by winning for the fifth time in five outings at the Wilton quad meet at Allen’s Meadow.

It’s how she’s won that’s been impressive — running out to big early leads and leaving all her competitors way, way behind. Her closest margin of victory was 33 seconds at the Wilton Invitational last month. Her average margin of victory has been a minute and 20 seconds.

On Tuesday, she competed the 2.5-mile course in a time of 14:11, which was her best race of the season. She won by nearly a minute over the runner-up from Guilford, Meredith Bloss, a strong runner in her own right.

That’s a really good time. It’s a 5:40 pace,” said Wilton head coach Jeff Gee. “Her season so far had been marked by an ability to turn in gutsy performances. (Bloss) went out with her for a while and then Morgan shifted gears.

“She’s in better shape than she was last year. She trained hard over the summer,” he continued. “Morgan is in tremendous shape right how. She was more dominating yesterday (than two weeks ago when she won by more than two minutes). She just went out and blasted it.”

I think I start out faster in races. I try to not look behind me, as it is one of my weaknesses, especially in track,” said McCormick, who hasn’t lost to an FCIAC or state rival the past two years in any cross-country race, except at last fall’s New England championships.

That makes her a marked person.

“There is definitely a lot of pressure, and this season the championship races are already looking difficult because of the high level of competition,” she said. “But as long as I run PRs, put in maximal effort and perform my best while having fun with the team, I will view this season’s outcomes as successful.”

While a little anxious whether his star runner can continue running at such a hard pace for two more months, Gee is impressed by what McCormick has shown thus far.

“Her determination and dedication — you don’t want to use words like unparalleled, but she’s operating at a very high level right now,” he said. “However the season turns out, her performances are exceptional.”

In addition to becoming the first Wilton runner to win the FCIAC, Class L and State Open cross country titles in the same season last year, McCormick swept the same three meets during the winter season in the 3200 meters.

Not bad for someone who started distance running only two years ago.

I played soccer and tennis during my freshman year and only started running as a sophomore. I’m at a bit of a disadvantage in that I do not have as much experience and mileage behind me as other runners,” she said. “My determination is a major component of my character, however, and running, similarly to school, is an outlet where I see how determination can pay off.”

“I think that maybe from her years of playing soccer, she has very strong legs, and obviously her cardiovascular ability is excellent,” said Gee, adding that McCormick has developed into a very smart, tactical racer in the course of her brief career.

“She’s become a real student of the sport. She has trained herself to be a savvy racer and obviously has what it takes to win,” he said. “She’s obviously committed herself to a very high level of excellence. There’s not a lot of people who will take that upon themselves.”

McCormick’s start this year is notable because last school year ended in disappointment as she didn’t finish out the outdoor season due to injury. She said that motivated her to come back strong this fall.

“I think that not being able to run in outdoor made me even more determined to contribute more to the team and improve my times,” she said. “It was fun getting to cheer on all the track athletes from both the boys and girls teams at all the championship meets last year, but to be honest, I really missed competing. What helped this summer is that the cross country team had a structured, effective summer training with Mary Zengo, the Wilton Running Club coach.”

Since joining the cross country team as a sophomore, McCormick has gotten better each year, each season.

She won the FCIAC cross country title last fall, setting a new school record for the FCIAC meet. Her time was nearly a minute faster than the year before, when she placed 11th.

She went on to win the Class L title — only the third Warrior to do so — with a time (18:50 for 5K) that set a new team record for the state meet. It was a drop of 1:41 over the previous year.

She capped off the season by becoming the first Wilton girl runner to win the State Open title in a time of 18:43, another team record. It was an improvement of two minutes over her time the previous year at the Open.

As in earlier races, McCormick’s finishing strength allowed her to pull away from her rivals over the final 400 to 600 meters.

“She was very, very strong. She knows she’s not the best sprinter in the race, so she likes to start going hard earlier,” said Gee after last year’s FCIAC meet. “She’s content to mark the other runners through the first couple of miles and then is confident in her ability to up the ante and have a long, hard run to the finish.”

After McCormick won the State Open, Gee commented, “We’ve had some great runners. For her to move up to that group and in some ways go to the top of that group, it’s a testament to her determination and desire and will. It’s something that doesn’t come around very often for Wilton.”

McCormick went right from cross country into winter track last year and, if anything, kept getting better and better. She won all three big post-season meets in the 3200 meters. She broke the 25-year-old team record in the event (11:17) with a time of 11:08, and broke it three more times in the following month — the last time with a 10:56 at the State Open.

McCormick said her first goal right now is to stay injury-free. Beyond that, she hopes to see the Wilton team run well at states and qualify for New Englands.

Individually, she is looking to improve her 5K time, make the All-New England team (she finished 26th last year), and turn in a great performance at the Foot Locker Northeast Regionals in late November.

Beyond that, she hopes to keep running in college, either on the school team or club team.