U-32 cross-country was so good this year, it wasn’t even funny.

The Raiders captured their fifth straight Division II running crown with an 87-point victory before beating D-I champ CVU by 61 points at the Meet of Champions.

Coach Andrew Tripp isn’t joking when he boasts of having seven No. 1 racers. And he’s not exaggerating when he describes Jacob Miller-Arsenault as the most improved athlete he’s ever coached.

After putting in the miles and paying his dues for the last three years, the senior is a fitting choice as Times Argus Runner of the Year.

“It’s the compounded work of 150 weeks,” Tripp said. “Most of us don’t look at improvement at that long a stretch. This sport rewards anonymous hard work. But it also rewards people who can take the long view. And most teenagers just don’t take the long view. But Jake totally did. And he overcame the frustration of seeing kids who had maybe a little more talent — or grew before him or who didn’t work as hard or who weren’t as dedicated — doing better than him. So slowly he picked them off one by one by one by one. Until there was no one left. Anybody with a sense of fairness, you can’t help but love it.”

Miller-Arsenault earned team MVP honors after pacing the Raiders five times this fall. Even though the team’s order flip-flopped routinely, he was the most consistent front-runner and kept his teammates honest during training and on race day.

The Raiders could have easily gone through the motions at the state meet and still prevailed with ease. They decided to go for broke instead, recording the first perfect score in program history. And to cap off a 1-5 finish, U-32 also snagged the next two spots for a seven-runner sweep.

“No. 1-7, I’ll never see that again,” Tripp said. “And we have 16 or 17 guys who could easily be varsity on most other teams in Vermont. And I think definitely our second seven would have won D-II this year, and probably would have made New England’s. I think it helps that there’s skiing and track, because it’s not always the exact same characters in the exact same order. Sam (Clark) and Tzevi (Schwartz) and Jed (Kurts), those are national-caliber skiers. Jed was our seventh guy. They know that they’re getting super strong for skiing even if they’re getting their butts kicked a little bit in practice in cross-country.”

Senior twins Patrick and Leo Cioffi have been mainstays near the front of the Raiders’ pack, while junior twins Austin and Carson Beard both made huge leaps this season. Miller-Arsenault was also joined on varsity by Ollie Hansen and Kurts, whose older brother Waylon was the state champ last year. Former U-32 standout Andrew Crompton won the 2018 individual title after fellow Raider Stephen Looke triumphed in 2017.

“These guys are like pack animals,” Tripp said. “So if you take the alpha wolf out, so when there’s no Waylon, suddenly there’s more testosterone in the room and more meat on the table. And it’s always interesting to see who is going to step up from all the beta wolves. They’re going to be the one that leads first. And I don’t think it necessarily occurred to Jacob that it could be him. Because he has this mentality of just grind, grind, grind. And then all of sudden he started to make big jumps. He kind of woke up and the first race happened and he ran this huge PR. And he was like, ‘Oh, wow. All those workouts this summer maybe weren’t lies. I am maybe your best guy.’ And the next race he was like, ‘OK, I guess that’s my job now.’”

The Raiders are fortunate to even have their top dog on the roster after Tripp reluctantly started to coach him three years ago. Miller-Arsenault played soccer during the fall of his freshman year and went out for track and field in the spring. Tripp recalls hoping that the distance runner “would perhaps amount to a useful role player.” After bonding with some of U-32’s year-round endurance athletes, Miller-Arsenault considered joining the cross-country squad.

“His sophomore summer he told me he was trying to decide between cross and soccer,” Tripp said. “And I actually urged him to think really hard about switching because he’d put so much into soccer. He played year-round and that had been his big focus.”

Miller-Arsenault made his debut in 2018 with a 5-kilometer time of 20 minutes, 41 seconds. He ran an 18:40 at the U-32 Invitational and broke 19 minutes again at the Randolph, Essex and Manchester Invitationals. After crossing the line in 18:33 at NVAC Mountain Division Championships, Miller-Arsenault placed 20th at states in 19:06 to help U-32 defeat Harwood by 46 points.

The three-sport varsity athlete showcased remarkable consistency last year, kicking things off with an 18:58 at the Essex Invitational. He followed up an 18:58 at the Manchester Invitational by finishing in 18:48 the next week at the U-32 Invitational. Miller-Arsenault’s trajectory remained strong, evidenced by an 18:39 at St. Johnsbury, an 18:14 at Montpelier, an 18:51 at NVAC All-League Meet and a 19:19 at district championships. Despite his best efforts, U-32’s varsity roster was so stacked that Miller-Arsenault was relegated to the Challenge Race at states. He placed 15th in that field and was 108th-fastest among all competitors.

“Last year Jacob worked really, really hard and was our No. 7 or 8 guy coming into the season,” Tripp said. “And then he ended up our 12th or 13th guy. And so it was really disappointing for him. But he just kept showing up, kept putting in the work. And that’s not in the nature of teenagers. We deal with a quick-fix, instant-gratification society. And training for running is hard. You’re sore and tired and beat up most of the time. I’ve never seen a kid take the long view that Jacob did.”

Even though his individual ranking on the team dropped a bit, Miller-Arsenault was still fully invested in the year-round training culture. This past winter he placed 11th in classic and 15th in freestyle during Nordic skiing state championships. His efforts helped U-32 lock up a seven-point victory over three-time defending champ Middlebury.

He was prepared for a breakout spring season on a powerhouse track and field program that claimed six straight titles from 2013 to 2018. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted those plans, but it did’t stop Miller-Arsenault from ramping up his workout volume. Although Tripp could not coach anyone in person, he was confident that his athletes weren’t slacking during lockdown.

“We were doing team Zoom calls and there’s a culture of our team training — and they seemed to be training,” Tripp said. “It started out pretty much all solo. And then as the spring moved on, they started to get together for some pod runs once we had the rules that said we could get together less than 10. So they would start doing regular workouts. And then in the summer the regulations let us have a similar type of arrangement as previous summers, with a couple team workouts. But otherwise they were left to their own devices.

“You send out workouts as a coach, but when you’re not with the kids there’s only so much you can do. With Jake, that was no problem. He would do all those anonymous workouts. Last spring, when the guys were getting together informally and running, he was always there. He put six or seven months in straight, starting in March, of 60-65 miles a week.”

The Raiders met for Fun Runs outside the Montpelier track each Tuesday and completed long runs during the weekend. It wasn’t until Sept. 15 that U-32 held its first official practice, and even those sessions were split up between underclassmen and upperclassmen because of school rules. When Miller-Arsenault shattered his personal record during the first meet of the season, Tripp was impressed but not surprised.

“Sometimes kids start to train, and in a month they’re a lot better,” Tripp said. “But Jacob didn’t break 5 minutes for the mile until June of this year. I could tell this summer that it was all coming together for him. All the workouts that he was just getting way, way faster. And you see: Instead of the very small incremental improvements that he had been making for a couple of years, suddenly there were big jumps happening. It just took a long time and a lot of work. But those big jumps started to materialize. To go from 19-something his first year as a sophomore, to 18-something, I’ve never had anyone in their third year jump from 18-something to 16-and-a-half.”

A 16:56 at the SeaHornet Invitational was good enough for third place. After completing a tempo run in 19:59 at the Millstone Trails, Miller-Arsenault claimed runner-up honors in 18:08 to fuel a narrow victory over St. Johnsbury. The following week he crossed the line in 17:57 to finish fifth at NVAC Mountain Division Championships. The Raiders lost to the Hilltoppers by six points that day during a team time trial format, providing a wake-up call two weeks before the state meet.

“There was no ra-ra or yelling or shouting after we got beat by St. J,” Tripp. “But the next week we came out and they were like, ‘Well that ain’t happening again.’ And when St. J beat us, I thought we raced kind of soft. And party it was because we didn’t have people around us and time-trialing is hard. But also we didn’t have one of our guys who’s just like, ‘Alright guys, just keep up if you can.’ And so we gave that job to Jed the next week. And he crushed it and we had seven guys hit the mile at 5:05 at that next race in St. Albans. And it was like, ‘OK, game over.’ Our top five were all in the top 10. That’s what we did at states too, and it worked both those times.”

Miller-Arsenault placed fourth at the BFA-St. Albans event in 16:32. He was fifth during a meet at Oxbow in 18:07 before U-32 stole the show at states. The senior’s winning time of 17:17 set the tone for an unprecedented sweep, with all seven Raiders crossing the line within 25 seconds of each other.

“One of the big things about making the jump with him is he stopped doubting himself in the middle of races,” Tripp said. “In previous years he had a tendency to get negative about himself — as a lot of us do. And this year, in the last six minutes, he was able to consciously work on that and learn to be able get through that. He really just mastered that side of racing, which is a huge deal. Not all of us can master that.”

U-32 snagged its fifth straight crown for the first time in program history after triumphing four times in a row from 1991-94. The Raiders’ trophy case also includes titles from 1980, 1983, 1987, 2000 and 2006.

“Occasionally I’ll tell the kids, ‘Go ask your parents how many state championships they won,’” Tripp said. “It’s just not that normal. But it also creates a positive pressure. Because they don’t want to be the ones who ‘mess it up.’ But it’s also like, ‘There’s no mystery here. If I do what these other perfectly normal guys have done — who I can see and touch and are a year or two older than me — that will be me in two years.”

In the absence of New England’s this year, top racers from all three divisions traveled to the Hard’Ack Recreation Area in St. Albans for the Meet of Champions. The D-I heavyweights didn’t stand a chance against the Raiders, whose five-person cumulative time was over two minutes faster than CVU. Oliver Hansen (fourth,16:39), Austin Beard (fifth, 16:42) and Miller-Arsenault (eighth, 16:49) scored points in the victory along with Patrick Cioffi (ninth, 16:50) and Carson Beard (10th, 16:58). Kurts (11th, 17:02) and Leo Cioffi (14th, 17:04) were a fews seconds behind.

“They’re pretty serious, but they don’t take themselves super seriously,” Tripp said. “They’re remarkably laid-back. A lot of them didn’t have that observable fire in their belly as racers until this year. And then this year all of them started — in their own unassuming way — just being like, ‘Right now we’re going to kick butt.’”

Miller-Arsenault, Kurts and the Cioffi brothers leave the program in a strong position for the future along with fellow seniors Carter Little, Alexander Saunders and Cameron Thompson. Hansen, the Beard twins, Clark, Schwartz and Bodhi Pugliese power a junior crew that could show its true colors at New England’s in 2021. Sophomores Wilder Brown, Sargent Burns, Colby Frostick and Otis Loga give U-32 more depth, while freshmen Julian Fitz, Gilbert Hughes, Cyrus Hansen and Taggart Schrader are also varsity contenders.

“The younger guys look around and say, ‘All these other guys on the team who are my friends, they (won states) and they’re not superman,’” Tripp said. “And the older guys are remarkably un-arrogant. They’re so nice that I would joke with them: ‘Guys, I only want you to be really competitive for 16, 17 minutes a week. You should be really good people, but get it out. It’s OK.’ And this year they still aren’t ornery. But they’ve grown into really good competitors.”

Miller-Arsenault started the season just hoping to make varsity. Two months later he closed out his senior campaign as the fastest racer in Division II. He will graduate as the top runner on arguably the greatest team in U-32 history. And that’s no small feat on a program with 14 titles.

“To his credit, when he’d get beat in a workout — which happened a lot — or in a race — which happened occasionally — he was not fazed by that,” Tripp said. “He wasn’t really fazed by all of a sudden being the top guy, or by not always being the top guy. He’s just got this maturity, which is why he was able to take this long road — and defer gratitude, defer gratitude and defer gratitude. But when he won states, that was an awesome moment. He trained so hard for it and he kept putting in the work. He’s taken the longest journey of any athlete I’ve coached.”

RECENT U-32 CHAMPS

2020

Jacob Miller-Arsenault (17:18)

2019

Waylon Kurts (16:50)

2018

Andrew Crompton (16:53)

2017

Stephen Looke (16:51)

2007

Jeff Lusignan (18:13)

2006

Jeff Lusignan (18:38)

2005

Jeff Lusignan (17:22)

2001

Mint Henk (15:52)

2000

Mint Henk (15:56)

1998

Nathan Shank-Boright (16:01)

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