DUXBURY — Times Argus Cross-Country Runner of the Year Ava Thurston defended her individual state crown this fall, guiding the Harwood girls to their 10th title in 11 seasons.

She broke the school’s 5-kilometer record, won six major races and placed fifth at New England Championships. The Division II competitor was 14 seconds faster than D-I champ Alicia Veronneau at states and beat the CVU star by seven seconds at New England’s. Thurston is also the reigning Vermont champ in Nordic skiing who placed second at junior nationals last season.

And she’s still a sophomore.

If it seems like the sky’s the limit for Thurston, it’s because she keeps finding ways to get faster. While most runners experience highs and lows throughout the season, the Waterbury native showcased uncommon consistency paired with a strong upward trajectory.

“I had a great season last year too, so I wasn’t sure how it would be different this year,” Thurston said. “Our team was going to be generally the same, but we had a lot of freshmen this year — which was great. And I think we were even stronger than last year. Even with having Julianne (Young) injured, she still did a lot for the team. Individually, (coach) Kerrigan said he thought I went a little harder in all the intervals this year. And I think just knowing what to expect coming into the season, and basing some of our workouts off of my times from last year, I could tell that I was improving.”

Thurston made an instant impact as a freshman, placing fifth at the Essex Invitational (20 minutes, 26 seconds) and second at the Burlington Invitational (19:59). She became the fastest runner in program history by posting a time of 18:59 before winning states in 20:23.

There were only a handful of returning Vermont athletes who were faster than Thurston last season, including Bellows Falls standout Abby Broadley, Craftsbury’s Camille Bolduc and CVU’s Alice Larson. This year Thurston won states in 19:19, beating Broadley by 20 seconds while finishing more than a minute in front of Larson and Bolduc. She improved her placing by 139 spots at New Enlgands, charging hard along the final kilometer to finish in 18:44.

“Ava’s New England performance put her at a level that’s beyond most Division II champions from Vermont,” U-32 coach Mark Chaplin said. “There’s only been a few that have been at that level in New England, and there’s no one around here who can run with Ava. Our goal was simply to see if we could beat everyone else on their team. And her skiing is even better than her running.”

Chaplin and Harwood coach John Kerrigan have been rivals for over four decades, mentoring athletes like Liz Stephen and Caitlin Compton who went on to become Olympians. Although it’s rare for the highest-level individuals to remain dedicated to their high school, Thurston follows Stephen and Compton as a shining exception.

“Ava is not a prima donna at all,” Kerrigan said. “Sometimes you get kids like that who are so far ahead of the rest of the pack that they want to go do their own thing, not warm up with the team and stuff like that. And she’s the opposite of that. She’s a team competitor and she really wants everybody to run well.”

Thurston opened the season by placing second at the Essex Invitational, finishing eight seconds behind Veronneau in 19:14. After that she went on a heater, earning six victories in a span of seven races. After winning the Burlington Invitational (19:50.3), Manchester (N.H.) Invitational (19:09) and U-32 Invitational (19:45), Thurston defended her home turf at the Harwood Invitational (19:24). She won the NVAC Mountain Division Championships in 19:12 before resting up for states.

“At Harwood we train girls and boys together,” Thurston said. “We’d do it based off your 5K times, and you’d start at a different time. I would start back with the boys generally. And on 5x1Ks, it would be the top four varsity girls with all the varsity boys. And it was good, I think, to have them to run with. They don’t want to let us to catch them and it benefits everyone.”

It’s obvious that Thurston is highly driven and self-motivated, especially for her age. However, she still welcomes structure and predictability when it comes to her training schedule. Although some days were tougher than others, sticking to a similar routine each week made things easier while preparing for the long haul. One of the most painful workouts was doing three 1-kilometer sprints up “Kerrigan’s Killer,” the steepest stretch of terrain on the Duxbury course. The Highlanders were always rewarded for their work, enjoying a day off each Thursday.

“I really don’t like Killer intervals,” Thurston said. “But most of the workouts, knowing them from last year, I knew what to expect. And (Kerrigan) sends out a schedule each week, so you can prepare for everything. There’s definitely some days I like more than others. My favorites are probably Tuesdays. We do long runs and that’s a good day.”

According to Kerrigan, a few training methods to improve his athletes’ race times can result in breakthroughs mentally and physically. The veteran coach will send his racers out for 1-kilometer intervals five times in a row, with rest in between. When the 1K times are combined, each runner’s 5K goal can appear more attainable.

“The kids believe in the system and they work hard,” Kerrigan said. “They’re dedicated and they believe in themselves. And that’s the thing: to show them that they can do it. I show them their split times and say, ‘Look, this adds up to a 20-minute 5K — or whatever. You can do it.’ And they do — they believe in themselves. And the team camaraderie between all the kids is great.”

Considering the high volume to training time Thurston logged, it wasn’t a huge surprise when she shaved 43 seconds off her PR at the Maine Festival of Champions. She placed third in 18:16, leading Harwood to victory in a field of 58 teams. There was no shortage of buzz and momentum entering states as “Kerrigan’s Army” prepared to defend its title. CVU was a clear favorite in D-I, but the D-II outlook was blurry because Harwood suffered a 19-point loss to U-32 four weeks earlier. The Highlanders were the faster team on paper, though that was largely due to their results on an exceptionally flat course in Belfast, Maine.

“Kerrigan looked at our Belfast times, which are a lot faster than we run anywhere else, and we were ranked second in the state,” Thurston said. “He was like, ‘Oh, this is great.’ But we all kind of knew, ‘That’s our Belfast times, that’s a lot different.’ So it was kind of crazy that we actually ended up being second in the state.”

Thurston ran with Lamoille’s Meganne Gilmore for the first half of the state championship race and then pulled away at the summit of Morty’s Monster. She wound up beating Gilmore by 55 seconds and was 80 seconds faster than third-place finisher Maggie McGee.

”The weather was a lot nicer than last year,” Thurston said. “I ran against Meganne and Maggie (at NVAC Championships) and they’re really strong, so I was running with Megan for a lot of it until the top of Morty’s. And I just pushed over the top of the hill and got a little ahead. And then I ran through the whole roller coasters and down the hill, and I just continually picked it up. And I knew that the last hill would be hard. But it was awesome because we had a bunch of Harwood people cheering. And I just pushed up and over the top of it and into the finish.”

The chaos near the finish area made it difficult to determine a team winner, with Harwood’s Britta Zetterstrom placing sixth in 20:53.5. U-32 kept things close, led by May Lamb (fourth, 20:47), Shams Ferver (seventh, 21:03) and Lana Page (eighth, 21:05). In a blur, Harwood’s Charlie Flint (10th, 21:28.7), Julianne Young (11th, 21:32.9) and Caelyn McDonough (12th, 21:39.8) crossed the line before U-32’s fourth racer. Highlanders Jill Rundle (17th, 22:08.2) and Anlu Thamm (20th, 22:25.8) were close behind, guaranteeing a repeat title.

“I finished but I couldn’t really see from the end of the chute who was coming in where,” Thurston said. “But just talking to my teammates, everyone was smiling and seemed like they had a good race. And no one was upset. And we actually had seven of our girls in the top 20, which was really amazing. I’m just proud of them all.”

Harwood’s dynasty is officially reborn after its streak of eight straight championships ended when U-32 prevailed in 2017. The Highlanders and Raiders are both poised to return the bulk of their talent in 2020, and a few current middle school athletes could burst onto the scene in a hurry. One of those up-and-coming runners is Thurston’s younger sister Julia, currently an eighth-grader.

“There are quite a few girls in her grade, and there’s a few in seventh grade,” Thurston said. “We’ve got a good middle school program that feeds into ours. And I’m excited just to have her on the team and run with her over the summer.”

The next two years of Harwood cross-country will be a sight to behold. With two Thurston sisters racing side-by-side, coach Kerrigan’s best days may be ahead of him.

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