There was grass, sky, leaves and dirt. Then there was Northport's Mike Brannigan. Emerging from the eerily still foliage, Brannigan came dashing into view. At first glance, he was all alone -- his eyes focused on the finish line that lay just a few hundred feet away.
Shoreham-Wading River's Ryan Udvadia entered the scene as Brannigan approached the final marker, but the race had been decided before the two came into view. The Northport junior was the overall Suffolk champion, finishing the Sunken Meadow 5k in 16 minutes, 12.61 seconds at the division championships Tuesday afternoon.
"I broke away at the end of the bridge on the home straightaway," Brannigan said. "When I didn't see [Udvadia] behind me, I knew it was going to be a victory." Udvadia finished second in 16:16.65, earning himself the Division III individual title.
Northport took five of the top 10 places, scoring 29 points on its way to a second consecutive Suffolk cross country title and fourth consecutive county championship, encompassing cross country, winter and spring track and field.
"It's pretty amazing," senior Tim McGowan, who was third in 16:33.13, said. "I look at other teams in the county that have guys who are very good who have to train alone every day. But we have an amazing program with an amazing coaching staff that can constantly train together. Everyone is at the same level."
That team unity and similar skill level was a key to the victory, particularly early on in the race. "We knew that the third mile had to be the fastest one," McGowan said. "We wanted to coast through the first mile together and stay as a pack. After cardiac [hill], it was just a battle. We were ready for it."
Northport's readiness had everything to do with their familiarity with each other and nothing to do with the familiarity, or lack thereof, with the course. In fact, Northport had not competitively run the new Sunken Meadow 5k course -- which was reconstructed after damage from superstorm Sandy -- this season.
"It was difficult," McGowan said. "We practiced on it once or twice and were ready for it. It didn't matter where we were racing. We just worried about the competition."
The hardest part of the race, McGowan said, was the portion following the descent of the infamous Cardiac Hill.
"We're on a cement road and the sun was just beating down on us," McGowan said.
Jack McGowan finished seventh in 16:56.90. Justin Leopold took eighth in 16:59.06 and Nick Termine closed out the top 10 in 17:02.45.
"We always have someone in front of us and always have someone knocking on the door to take our spot," Leopold said of the competitive team dynamic.
West Islip took the Division II title. Sophomore Kyle Kelly finished first among that group, taking 14th overall in 17:14.35. Shoreham-Wading River, led by Udvadia, won Division III. Division IV went to Bayport-Blue Point and junior Shawn Bofinger, whose 17:25.30 was good for 20th overall.