NEW CANAAN -- Cate Allen had a difficult choice to make during the summer: keep playing soccer at Fairfield Warde High School or extend her running regimen from two to three seasons by taking up cross country in the fall.
The junior-to-be chose cross country. Best decision of her young life.
In her first season running cross country for the Mustangs, Allen emerged as the FCIAC individual champion. Allen bested the field at Waveny Park by completing the 4K race in 14:20, a record time, during Thursday's league championships.
"I played soccer (the last two years) but I've always enjoyed indoor and outdoor track," Allen said. "Even though I was playing soccer, I leaned more to cross country, and then just decided to do it this year."
That was great for Allen and her team; not so great for the other FCIAC championship contenders Thursday. Allen beat Westhill High's Claire Howlett (14:25) to win the first big race of her cross country career. Freshman Hannah DeBalsi of Staples was third (14:34), ahead of pre-race favorite Anne Johnston of Darien (14:41). Another Westhill Viking, Nicole Ambrosecchio, finished fifth in 14:44.
Ridgefield, meanwhile, captured its second consecutive team championship. Led by Laura Hergenrother, Sarah Guillaume and Caroline Carr, who finished sixth through eighth, the Tigers (55 points) held off runner-up Darien (94).
Allen expected a serious push from Johnston, a sophomore also in her first FCIAC championship race. Johnson was the favorite based on her regular-season record.
"I knew (Allen, Howlett and DeBalsi) all run better track times than me, plus they all ran their best races ever today," Johnston said, "I thought the start of the race would be much slower than it was and that surprised me. Cate put pressure on me the whole way, she ran a great race.
"It was disappointing," Johnston continued, "but now I have to use this and turn my frustration into determination for the upcoming state races."
Howlett held off both Johnston and DeBalsi of Staples to grab second place. After finishing fifth a year ago, the Westhill junior was thrilled with her performance.
"I would've been happy just finishing in the top five," she said. "Cate was incredible. I didn't expect to beat her. My goal was really just to break 15 minutes. I like getting good times more than where I finish. If I finished in last place with that time I would have been ecstatic."
"I was a little worried because this course is flat and short and doesn't play to our strength," Ridgefield coach John Goetz said. "But we did about as well as I expected."
The Tigers, who won the regular season championship over Darien, Wilton, Fairfield Warde and Greenwich, finished with four girls in the top 15 (All-FCIAC First Team), twice as many as any other school.
FCIAC Girls Cross Country Championships
TEAM SCORES: 1. Ridgefield 55, 2. Darien 94, 3. Danbury 112, 4. Wilton 117, 5. Fairfield Warde 120, 6. Greenwich 168, 7. Westhill 171, 8. Staples 178, 9. New Canaan 182, 10. Trumbull 299, 11. Fairfield Ludlowe 316, 12. McMahon 347, 13. Norwalk 391, 14. St. Joseph 416, 15. Stamford 436, 16. Harding 499
INDIVIDUALS: 1. Cate Allen (Warde) 14:20, 2. Claire Howlett (Westhill) 14:25, 3. Hannah DeBalsi (Staples) 14:34, 4. Anne Johnston (Darien) 14:41, 5. Nicole Ambrosecchio (Westhill) 14:44, 6. Laura Hergenrother (Ridgefield) 14:48, 7. Sarah Guillaume (Ridgefield) 14:56; 8. Caroline Carr (Ridgefield) 15:01, 9. Caroline Keough (Warde) 15:02; 10. Kristen Dakin (Danbury) 15:08; 11. Grace Loh (Darien) 15:11; 12. Kristin Burnham (McMahon) 15:24; 13. Sarah Colon (Darien) 15:26; 14. Melissa Budicini (Ridgefield) 15:28; 15. Sarah Healey (Wilton) 15:29