BY MICHAEL KELLY
CLIFTON PARK — For a couple seconds, Shenendehowa junior Alexandra Tudor paused to collect her thoughts at Thursday’s girls’ track and field practice.
“I just can’t focus with all of them singing,” said a laughing Tudor, gesturing toward where a group of her teammates had broken out into song a few feet away from her as they stretched out.
And there sure was enough of them to cause a commotion. While Section II teams have seen their rosters shrink to include only athletes competing in Friday’s and Saturday’s state championships at Union-Endicott, there’s still plenty of Plainsmen left.
At the heart of that? The members of Shenendehowa’s three relay teams, all of which qualified together for the state championships for the third consecutive year.
“It’s always an emphasis to bring as many people as you can to states,” senior Julia Zachgo said. “Here, it’s all about the team. You’d rather be on a relay.”
When Shenendehowa coach Rob Cloutier’s program pulled off its relays sweep in 2015, it seemed like the type of feat special enough to be a one-year aberration. But the Plainsmen’s 400-meter, 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter relay teams each qualified for states again in 2016, and then did the same this year.
“We strive to get to the relays, and each do our best,” junior Olivia Lomascolo said. “We expect that from each other.”
Cloutier — whose team is also sending several athletes, including star senior thrower Jill Shippee, to compete as individuals — readily acknowledges his program benefits from Shenendehowa’s largest-in-the-area enrollment. He knows there are others who see his program as having an “endless supply” of athletes, and his roster this year gives extra ammunition to those who take that view.
After all, his program’s 3,200 relay won a state championship during the indoor season with a lineup of Zachgo, Lomascolo, junior Hannah Reale and freshman Jade Dennis . . . and that lineup has traded out Jade Dennis — who instead will compete in the 1,600 relay this week — for her twin sister, freshman Jada Dennis, for its upcoming race.
“So, now, her twin sister bumps her out in outdoor,” Cloutier said, “which is just crazy — and I’m sure makes other teams mad.”
But there’s more to Shenendehowa’s success than having a lot of kids at its disposal; otherwise, its three-year run would not be so eye-catching. While the powerful program has qualified at least one relay for the state championships each year since 2007, the quality of Shenendehowa’s depth in recent years has been a notch above its normal level.
“Kids are just always stepping up,” Cloutier said. “We’ve had so many good athletes graduate, but new kids keep buying in.”
After this week, it’s expected 20 different athletes will have competed at outdoor states for a Shenendehowa relay since the start of the 2015 championships. From this year’s relay athletes, four — Lomascolo, the Dennis twins and junior Rita Sramek — are rookies in that regard, while junior Melissa Haas, Tudor, Reale and Zachgo have competed for a relay in each year of the Plainsmen’s streak.
This year’s Shenendehowa 400 relay includes Haas, Tudor, junior Kelly Hamlin and senior Emily Schaffer, and is seeded fifth in the Division 1 race. Besides Jade Dennis, the school’s 1,600 relay lineup includes Hamlin, Sramek and junior Ally Arserio, and is seeded ninth. The school’s 3,200 relay is seeded second, a year after coming in second place, the best finish for a Shenendehowa relay during the current three-year run.
Shenendehowa won a national championship last year in the 3,200 relay, but Zachgo said this year’s foursome is motivated to win the state title the Plainsmen couldn’t in 2016.
“When you’re that close,” Zachgo said, “you want it that much more.”
And it’s been the ability of the Plainsmen to stay close this week that’s helped them prepare for this year’s state championships. While the crowd still practicing for Cloutier can get a bit noisy from time to time, Tudor said that atmosphere has helped Shenendehowa’s athletes deal with the pressure leading up to states.
“We’re like a family,” Tudor said, “and it’s better when there’s a lot of family around.”