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Mount Sinai cross country star Sarah Connelly works to conquer 'Cardiac Hill'

Sarah Connelly of Mount Sinai takes second at the Suffolk cross country Class B state qualifier at Sunken Meadow State Park on November 3, 2017. / Peter Frutkoff

Sunken Meadow State Park’s infamous "Cardiac Hill" has never been a walk in the park for cross country runners, but Mount Sinai’s Sarah Connelly plans to run up and down it like never before. Connelly, a junior, is coming off an impressive sophomore cross country season – one that featured a seventh place finish at the state Federation championship, the highest Long Island placer.

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Sunken Meadow State Park’s infamous "Cardiac Hill" has never been a walk in the park for cross country runners, but Mount Sinai’s Sarah Connelly plans to run up and down it like never before. Connelly, a junior, is coming off an impressive sophomore cross country season – one that featured a seventh place finish at the state Federation championship, the highest Long Island placer.

Connelly’s confidence saw an obvious boost after her successful post-season, but she’s leery of carrying that into this fall – with overconfidence being the occasional kiss of death for runners who experience underclass success.

“Too much confidence, where you’re riled up and think that you’re the best, will just bring you down,” she said. “I’m at a good confidence level.”

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Connelly, who ran the 5-kilometer Federation course in 18 minutes, 56.1 seconds, said she is stronger and more focused this year. No longer is she just running to run. Instead, Connelly’s taking steps with a purpose and coming to the line with a plan. Part of that plan includes not walking up sections of Cardiac, an oft-used energy-saving strategy on the steep incline.

“It was definitely hard,” Connelly said of her time on Cardiac last year. “I did walk a couple of steps, so I think if I can run up the whole thing, that will definitely help. Maybe just my getting stronger throughout the past three seasons will make me better.”

That strength is sure to help her mentally. Sometimes, just knowing that you can make it up Cardiac is half the battle.

“Leading up to Snake (hill) and Cardiac is always the hardest because you’re thinking about the hills and everything,” she said. “But, I feel like now I’m stronger and, if I don’t think about it as much, it’ll be a lot easier.”

A better Connelly is an intimidating prospect for the rest of Suffolk County. She is the fastest returner from the state qualifier last season, finishing second overall in 19:27.73 at Sunken Meadow, and is coming off a Division II outdoor state 3,000 meter championship, running a 9:52.24 in Cicero in June. Increased speed, confidence, and focus will equal fast times for the Suffolk standout.

“The mind is a very important thing,” Mt. Sinai coach Bill Dwyer said. “She’s a very smart runner. She does what needs to be done…She’s the leader. If we do a workout, Sarah has the pace…She’s tough as nails, extremely coachable, and not afraid of hard work.”

Dwyer continued: “The skies the limit for her.”

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Connelly’s personal best time, she said, is 18:53. She’s hoping to get that down to 18:30 by season’s end.    

“The three seasons (last year) just made me stronger,” Connelly said. “If I could go around the track seven and a half times and get that time (9:52.24), I think cross country should be a lot easier – even with the hills.”

Connelly isn’t the only Mount Sinai athlete who has fast times on the brain. Sophomore Kaitlyn Chandrika finished ninth in the 2,000 meter steeplechase in 7:01.26 at the outdoor state championships. Because of the intense nature of that race, with a combination of distance running, hurdling, and the famous water pit, it can be a good primer for rigorous cross country running.

“She pushes me,” Chandrika said of Connelly. “She’s more distance and I’m more mid-distance. So, I’ll push her in strides and she’ll push me in long runs.”

Connelly and her teammates might get an extra chance to run up and down those treacherous hills, with the state public school championships being run at Sunken Meadow on Nov. 10.  

“I think there’s a lot of challenges with Sunken Meadow, that you just have to do it a couple of times to know about, like where roots are and when to push” Chandrika, who wants to break 19 minutes there this year, said. “I actually think the hardest part is where you come out of the moat and you’re going up snake. There’s a lot of people and you get crowded. It’s a slight up hill and there’s not really good footing for spikes. It’s kind of nerve-wracking.”

As one of, if not the single, toughest course in the state, Suffolk athletes should have a significant advantage there.

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“Because it’s such a hard course, a lot of people will be shocked by it,” Isabella DiPalermo, another Connelly teammate who finished eighth at the Class B Suffolk State Qualifier last fall, said. “We’re going to run on it a lot. So, I think we’ll end up benefiting from it, although it’s painful.”

But, the Mount Sinai runners are hardly the only standouts on Long Island.  Sacred Heart’s Maggie Maier has dominated the CHSAA during her first two seasons and is starting to become a major presence in the state. Maier finished 10th at last season’s state Federation championship in 19:02.5.

RUNNERS TO WATCH

Bay Shore’s Roshni Singh finished third overall at last season’s Suffolk State Qualifier in 19:29.93 and is the second-fastest returner in the county. Sachem North’s Jordyn McDonnell is coming off a top-25 finish at the state Federation championship, running 24th in 19:22.7. Sachem East’s Melissa Merone and Lindsey Dodenhoff both had top-six finishes at last year’s Suffolk State Qualifier. Merone was fifth in 20:04.93 and Dodenhoff was sixth in 20:06.93.

In Nassau, South Side’s Carly Woelfel is the fastest returner from the Nassau State Qualifier. She ran 18:52.55 at Bethpage State Park last fall. Oceanside’s Andria Scaglione was third at the qualifier in 19:08.21 and North Shore’s Sophie Rosencrans was the highest finishing freshman, running sixth in 19:20.58.