Gee and Wilton girls cross country have been model of success

The first hints of fall are popping up, which means another school year is about to begin. And for Jeff Gee, it’s always one of the best times of the year.

“I love cross country. When it comes, it’s the best time of the year,” said Gee, who is set to begin his 29th season as head coach of the Wilton High cross country team. “To be outside for a couple of hours a day and around kids of intellect and focus and determination, you can’t ask for better than that — and then to get paid for it. It’s a lot of fun.”

Gee, who has also been coaching track at WHS since 1986, is the second-longest serving varsity head coach at Wilton, behind only Tim Eagen, who just completed his 37th season as head coach of the WHS baseball team.

He has coached the boys and girls cross country teams at Wilton since 1988 — sometimes with assistant coaches, many years on his own. While the boys team has produced several great runners, it’s been the girls who have prospered as a team.

“Most of our success has been with the girls,” he said. “The boys may not have been in the top three or four, but they’re always up there.”

The Wilton girls cross country team may be the most consistently successful program at the school over Gee’s tenure.

The Wilton girls have placed top three at the FCIAC championships in 23 of the past 27 seasons, including eight FCIAC titles and seven FCIAC second-place finishes. The Warriors have never finished worse than sixth at FCIACs.

The only Wilton team with more FCIAC titles over than span is the gymnastics team, with nine.

Since the 1989 season, Wilton has gone 372-48 in dual meets, averaging close to 14 wins and less than two losses per season, including nine undefeated seasons and 14 FCIAC East Division titles.

The Warriors have put together two historic winnings streaks. In a stretch from 1990 to 1995, they won 75 dual meets in a row, and nearly matched that in 2005-08 with a winning streak of 68.

On the state level, the Wilton cross country girls have finished first or second at the class meet 19 times in 27 years, including eight state titles. Only the WHS boys lacrosse team has won more states titles (11) over that span.

There are also three State Open titles and two State Open second-place finishes, and two second-place finishes at the New England championships.

“I do feel fortunate to have found a home in Wilton. I had so many great kids and so many great athletes,” said Gee, who credits the team’s success to the determination and desire of the runners themselves.

“All I had to do is push them in the right direction and make sure they weren’t over-training,” he said. “Wilton is a wonderful town. It’s not as wealthy of most of it neighbors. You do have a lot hard-working parents and they’re motivated to do well. I think you just harness that and off you go.”

The Wilton girls finished third at both the FCIAC and Class L state meets last season, and are expected to be solid again in 2016. Despite graduating one of the best runners in program history in Mary Lynch, a three-time New England qualifier, the Warriors expect to return six of last year’s top eight.

The winning tradition is carried on from year to year, and Gee feels the foundation of the team’s success has been the leadership from the older girls.

“I put a lot of importance on team leaders and captains who have been in the program a number of years. They want to see it continue. They exert a really positive influence. It makes my job a lot easier, and I can focus on specifics,” he said. “There’s a lot of pride in the program. I see it in the captains this year.”

Gee recounted a story from the 1992 team, which lost the Class MM state championship to Bethel by three points. Before the State Open, he had planned to give the team a pep talk but was told he didn’t have to. The team’s leader, Laura O’Donnell, had already taken care of it.

The Warriors went on to blow away everybody, including Bethel, to win the Open.

“I have seen that many times over the course of my time at Wilton,” said Gee. “The kids have a lot of spirit. You just have to tap into it.”

Gee’s running days go back to Rippowam High School in Stamford, where he ran cross country and track, graduating in 1970. He began his coaching career with stints as an assistant track coach at Westhill and Darien, and then coached track and cross country at Weston High School.

He met fellow coach Jim Gerweck in the late 1970s and they become good friends, eventually going into business at the Wilton-based Ultimate Ink, where they produce graphic design T-shirts for races and school events.

It was Gerweck who helped bring Gee to Wilton in 1986, when he was head coach of the outdoor track team and needed an assistant. Gee became head coach of the girls outdoor team the next year and will mark 30 seasons with the team next spring.

In 1988, Gerweck stepped down as cross country coach (to coach field hockey) and asked Gee if he wanted to take over the team and Gee accepted — just an hour before the first practice.

At that point, the boys team was in better shape. The girls team only had five or six girls that first season and forfeited most of its meets because it didn’t have five runners for a complete team.

But two of the girls, Hilary Billington and Emily Caruthers, were talented runners, with top-five finishes at the FCIAC meet and top-15 finishes at the Class MM state meet.

Caruthers, a freshman that year, was also the first in a line of runners who left their primary fall sport (in her case, soccer) to run cross country — one of the team’s secrets to success over the years. Some to follow in the next few years would be Nicole Hoefling (from field hockey), O’Donnell (from volleyball), Emily Dodds (from field hockey) and Jamie Sutherland (from soccer).

Billington graduated and Caruthers went back to soccer, but in 1989 Wilton’s roster grew to eight runners. The key addition was Hoefling, who wound up placing second at the State Open and qualifying for New Englands. The Wilton team, which also featured several other key newcomers in Jenn O’Rourke and Erin and Lauren Smith, finished third at FCIACs and fourth in Class MM.

That set the table for a run of domination, as Wilton won five straight FCIAC titles from 1990-94, along with three class state titles and three State Open titles.

In 1990, just two years after not having enough runners to score as a team, Wilton won the FCIAC title — its first since 1982. Caruthers had returned from soccer and won Wilton’s first individual FCIAC title since Wendy Smith in the early 80s.

At the Class M state meet, Wilton tied St. Bernard’s (Montville) for first place in the points standings, but lost the title on a tiebreaker. The Warriors rebounded the next week to win its first-ever State Open and then finished fourth at New Englands.

The 1991 team may have been Wilton’s best, finishing 11-0 and winning the FCIAC, Class MM and State Open championships.

The team’s top five at the Class M meet (Molly Dinan, O’Donnell, Liz Watson, Carrie Lucas and Caruthers) produced the lowest score ever at the meet with 22 points, as all five finished in the top eight.

The Warriors also set an FCIAC meet record for girls with 27 points, and set the meet record at the State Open with 52 points — winning by 77 points.

They finished second at New Englands and were ranked 16th in the country at the end of the season.

“We were probably the strongest cross country team in the history of the state. There was just a tremendous amount of talent at the high school,” Gee said. “I think we were very lucky to have that much talent at Wilton at that time. The team was very self-directed.”

It was a tough act to follow but in 1992 the Warriors came close, going 12-0 and winning their third straight FCIAC title. O’Donnell won the individual title and Dodds was second, and Lucas, Jamie Sutherland and Michele Anastasio were all top eight. The 22 points was the lowest score ever recorded by a team at the FCIAC meet, boys or girls, and bested the second-place team by 60 points.

The team lost the Class MM title by three points to Bethel, but again bounced back to win the State Open, before taking ninth at New Englands.

The Warriors won FCIAC and class state titles in 1993 and 1994, going 15-0 in dual meets, and had another FCIAC champ in 1994 with Sutherland. Other top runners from this time included Lucas, Amy Lipscomb, Cindy Schwartz, Meghan Lynch, Bonnie Gault and Amy Leventhal.

Wilton’s FCIAC run ended in 1995 when the Warriors finished second, but the team was another powerful group, going 15-1 and also taking second the class meet. Top performers were Megan Hagberg, Sarah Lantz and Anne-Chris Kreter.

After two seasons that could be described as subpar only by Wilton's standards, the Warriors bounced back in 1998 to go 14-2 and finish second at both the FCIAC and class meets. Leading that comeback season were Whitney Horton, Meghan O’Donnell, Kathleen Reeves, Kristin Wood and Sandy Lantz.

The following three seasons were tough ones, as the Warriors never finished higher than third at the FCIAC meet or higher than fourth at the class meet. In 2001, they placed sixth at FCIACs.

The team bounced back — all the way back — in 2002 with a remarkable season, finishing undefeated (17-0). The Warriors won their first FCIAC and state titles in eight years.

That team was led by freshman Kerri Lyons, who won the team’s first individual FCIAC title since 1994, along with two other FCIAC top-five finishers in Katlyn Regan and Emily Williams. It was as strong a top three as Wilton’s ever had, said Gee.

The Warriors also finished second at the Open and second at the New England championships for the second time, despite not having fourth runner Kerry Hand, a three-time first-team all-FCIAC pick, who was hurt.

Lyons would go on to win two more FCIAC titles, becoming the first runner to ever win three straight FCIAC championships. She also won Wilton’s only Class MM title as a senior in 2005, with younger sister Kendall placing third.

The stretch of 2004-07 was extremely successful, and frustrating. The Warriors’ dual meet record over those four years was an amazing 64-1, including three straight undefeated seasons in 2005-07. But they were always thwarted at the championship meets, finishing second behind Ridgefield at FCIACs, and second to Guilford at the Class MM meet, all four years.

The 2007 team, anchored by Cara Costich (third in Class MM), did finish strong, taking fourth at the Open and seventh at the New England meet.

Wilton was back on top in 2008, winning the FCIAC title and taking second in Class MM, before finishing fourth at both the State Open and New England meets.

The next season, the Warriors were edged out (by three points) by Fairfield Warde for the FCIAC title, but rebounded to win its first class state title (this time, Class L) in seven years, beating Warde. They finished second the the Open.

The 2008-09 teams featured a blend of veterans like Costich, Phoebe Gaston, Grace House and Celeste Hoelzl, and a slew of talented young runners like Julia Broach, Rebecca Craig, Zoe Gaston, Alosha Southern, Sara Guth and Gabby House.

In the 2010 season those youngsters produced one of Wilton’s best seasons ever, as the Warriors finished 18-0 and won the FCIAC title in dominating fashion with Guth, Zoe Gaston, Southern, Broach, Craig and House all finishing in the top 20.

The next three years saw Wilton win three consecutive state Class L titles, with Southern (second in Class L in 2011), Alex Fiesel, Keiley Gaston, Paige Lyons, Craig and House leading the way in 2011-12, adding Sarah Healy and Mary Lynch into the mix in 2012-13.

The 2013 state title was anchored by Healy, a senior who didn’t switch from soccer to cross country until her junior year. She was second at the Class L meet and qualified for the New England championships along with Lynch.

Lynch carried on Wilton’s tradition the next two seasons, qualifying twice more for New Englands and finishing second at last year’s FCIAC meet.

Gee’s other lasting legacies to Wilton cross country include the Wilton High course and the Wilton Invitational.

When he started as coach, the Warriors ran at Rolling Hills Country Club. In 1988, he got permission to plot out a course through Allen’s Meadow, which remains the team’s home course to this day.

At the time, he said, Allen’s Meadow featured one boys lacrosse field, some trails used for dirt bike races, and an old soccer field that was overgrown.

“We just mowed a path through the field,” he remembered.

At a time when other schools still had cross country races on nearby roads, Wilton was among the first to have its own, true cross-country course. Gee said it is a source of pride for Wilton runners, and has had a big impact on the program.

The first Wilton Invitational was held in 1989 and has grown from six teams that first year to as high as 46 teams. Now it is kept to a manageable 32 teams, and is among the biggest early-season meets for high school runners in the state.

Gee said he hasn’t changed his coaching philosophy over the years. He believes many coaches over-train runners, who tend to burn out later. He has always taken a “less is more” attitude towards training, focusing on having runners first having a solid foundation and they gradually building off that.

“If they don’t get that, it’s very difficult to develop,” he said. “I’d like to see more kids continue into college and continue to develop.”

While he’s been the mainstay of the program for close to three decades, Gee noted that the program’s success has resulted from the efforts of several assistant and co-coaches — such as former runners Norma Tranbarger and Kerry Hand, and people like Gerweck, Ted Farah and Frank Dahm — and parents.

“I’ve been lucky to have all the great people I’ve met. You meet so many great people and many great parents and great kids,” he said.

At the end of the day, discipline and determination are the keys to success, and Wilton has always had no shortage of those kind of kids, he said.

“They’re really exceptional individuals. They’re generally higher academic achievers. I like to be associated with this group,” he said. “You have more one-on-one connection with more kids than anyone else in the school, and you see them for four years.”

Gee has no plans to retire any time soon — he loves the sport too much and loves his work. He figures to be around at least five more years, “as long as I’m physically able to get out there and run around,” he said.

“I have a lot of energy. I still run. I’m still active. I’m still interested in the sport, and I’m always trying to find new ways to approach it.”