Nora Bennett of Kellenberg begins the race for her team...

Nora Bennett of Kellenberg begins the race for her team in their win in the girls 4 x 800 meter relay during the 2015 Stanner Games at The Armory Track on Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015. Credit: Steven Ryan

The rush of the run was just too much for Nora Bennett to ignore. Bennett, a Kellenberg sophomore, played soccer for the Firebirds last fall. Needing a way to stay in shape, she decided to join the winter track team. What she found when she stepped on the warm rubber oval was much more than an interesting way to keep physically fit. She found a second family.

"I was hooked," Bennett said. "Once I met all the people doing it, we got so close and I fell in love with it. I know that I'll be friends with the girls I met on the track with for so long. We're so close . . . I knew I had to do cross country."

Bennett was more than happy to leave her soccer spikes behind for a nicely fitting pair of cross trainers and away she went, trying to help Kellenberg defend its NSCHSAA league title.

And she's done a good job of it so far, making a name as the top sophomore in the league. Bennett won the NSCHSAA sophomore championship Wednesday at Sunken Meadow State Park, running the 2.5-mile course in 16 minutes, 26.62 seconds. Kellenberg scored 18 points and won the sophomore team title.

"I've gained a lot of confidence, mentally," Bennett said. "I used to get so nervous before every meet. But I've been able to stay more calm and levelheaded and have a plan of what I'm going to do in my mind . . . Every course I've gone on, it's been the first time. It's kind of nerve-wracking because I don't know what to expect all the time. But as the month has gone on and I run the courses more, I know what to expect. That helps me run faster times."

That victory came four days after Bennett's third-place finish on the Bethpage State Park 5-kilometer course, coming in 20:00.20, helped Kellenberg win the varsity A race at the Nassau Coaches Invitational, scoring 32 points. Her senior teammate, Deirdre Lewin, won the race in 19:32.12. The time was Lewin's personal record, she said.

Kellenberg had four more runners finish in the top 15. Brianna Lausev, a freshman, was eighth in 20:43.15. Julia Bryant was ninth in 20:46.37. Anita Mikowski was 12th in 21:07.92 and Brooke Baldassare was 15th in 21:21.87.

"It was a big breakthrough," Lewin said of the victory. "Everyone is in their best shape. We feel like it's coming right about now. Leagues should be the climax of all that hard training. We should have some really good performances. I'm really getting excited now. It's all building up to these last few meets."

The first of those big postseason meets will take place Nov. 1 when the Firebirds will look to defend their league title at Sunken Meadow. Lewin said the victory at the Nassau Coaches Invitational solidified a final top seven varsity lineup. But as for Kellenberg's top two runners, there's little question who will be toward the top.

"I would love to go 1-2 with Deirdre," Bennett said of her league championship goals. "There's very strong competition from St. Anthony's and St. John the Baptist. But I think we're all going to peak at the right time."

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