NORTH ANDOVER — The winter track season is always a puzzle for Merrimack track coach Jacky Mendes. The Warriors don’t have a home track for the indoor or outdoor season, but the indoor months seem to bring with them a little more juggling.
Ed. Note — This story will appear in Thursday’s Eagle Tribune
The team was practicing twice per week at North Andover High School and twice per week at Cedardale in Haverhill, but the latter had a devastating fire last month, and will remain closed for the forseeable future.
“That made things a little more hectic than usual,” Mendes said. “But we got through it and it all worked out.”
Indeed it did. The Warriors saw Carly Muscaro win a pair of national championships at the NCAA Indoor Championships last month, and the Warriors brought a record number of competitors to the meet. The women’s team finished seventh nationally overall.
John Braga finished 13th overall in the heptathlon.
It was a banner day. No doubt. Highlighted by Muscaro’s national championships in the 400 and 200. In the 400, Muscaro defended her title from last season.
“It has been a crazy ride,” Mendes said. “As a team, we’ve had a lot of success in a short amount of time. Carly has been a huge part of that, and it’s great because she’s such a team person. She leads for the rest of our team. Our whole team overcomes a lot of adversity, and we’re really flexible. It’s tough, our schedule, but I think that it prepares us for bigger meets and nationals. It’s also a great group of kids, who are all really hard-working, and they make the most of everything.”
Mendes said that there have been numerous members of the team who have seen drastic improvement in their times and distances. Those improvements, as well as performances from Muscaro and Braga at the top, have helped the Warriors program take off.
The program now has over 100 athletes. Mendes credited the entire coaching staff for helping run the program.
“It’s honestly not stressful at all,” she said. “We split it up. Our distance runners go with a coach and we split up our sprinters and throwers. We get everyone through in the weight room and the key is really the assistant coaches. They all handle their events and they do a great job fitting everything together. They’ve all been a huge part of the growth here. Without them, one person can’t handle a roster of 100 athletes and manage all the events. It takes a total team effort.”
The growth of the program hasn’t been unexpected. Mendes said she had a vision for what she wanted the program to be when she took over three seasons ago.
Muscaro’s rise to national prominence has been incredible. Braga’s rise through the ranks of the heptathlon has helped put the program on the map on the men’s side. Most recently, the women’s 4×400 relay team has also qualified for nationals. That team is led by Muscaro, along with fellow senior captain Olivia Downey, senior Kiana Weary and sophomore Michaela Pernell. The team finished with a program-best fourth-place finish at Indoor Nationals, earning the first All-American status for a relay team in school history.
“One of the first things we wanted to work on was having a bigger presence in the NE10 Championships,” Mendes said. “Then we wanted to try to win there. Along with that has a greater presence in the New England Championships, getting most of the team there and qualifying. Then we wanted to take a step further and start getting to nationals, but I’m not sure any of us expected for it to be this quickly.”
Mendes admits, that vision was thrown a little off course when Muscaro accelerated the progress of the program all on her own, qualifying for nationals out of the gate and winning a national championship as a junior.
“Everything went out the window as far as expectations once Carly came along,” Mendes joked. “I never thought in my entire career that we would have an athlete at Olympic Trials, yet there we were my second year here. Carly really forced us to get ready quickly for things like nationals. Her first time there was my first time there. We were learning together about the whole process. She is one of the greatest athletes ever in New England.”
Muscaro will go down as one of the best ever in this region, and she’s guaranteed a spot in the Merrimack Hall of Fame. At the same time, she’s been responsible for some of the huge growth of the program, and by doing things outside of her own performances.
In recent years, as the team brings more and more athletes to nationals, Muscaro is there to lend her experience. She said last spring the experience going has been huge for her. There is much more sitting around at nationals, and it can be more difficult to prepare for a race. Warmups and stretches need to be done at the right time.
“I know this year, our relay team really leaned on her experience,” Mendes said. “Carly is a great leader. She really helped everyone, and she enjoys having teammates with her at these events. It’s more fun.
“For me, I know I’m better with itineraries now. The first time, I just made up a lot of it from scratch. It was difficult. You don’t know how long you’re in the hotel or how much sitting around there was.
“Sometimes I feel like I want to remind people how difficult it is to get to nationals. Carly makes it appear very easy, but it’s not. There is a lot of hard work that goes into it from her perspective and everyone’s. When you’re there, it’s difficult to not get overwhelmed.”