Ed. Note — This story appeared in the Tuesday edition of The Eagle Tribune
NORTH ANDOVER — There are a lot of programs on the Merrimack campus that benefit from the the new Warrior Stadium that opened this past October, but perhaps no program benefits more than the track and field team, which finally has a place to call its home.
The Warriors have been an active program since 2010, but in those eight years, the Warriors never had an on-campus facility. Instead, they would use time they could get wherever else, including Cedardale in Haverhill and North Andover High School.
“This is absolutely amazing,” said head coach Mark Connolly. “We got in there when they opened it in October and we were using it to practice through Dec. 8. The college didn’t skimp on the details. We have everything we need, from pole vault pits to wind indicators. We can run three jumps at the same time.
“The town of North Andover was so kind to us all those years,” Connolly added. “They worked with us and they were very generous with their facilities. We’re searching for ways to pay that back now that we have a facility here. We would love to do that because they were so good to our program.”
Connolly said the Warriors are already seeing the stadium pay off in recruiting, and the Warriors are looking forward to hosting their first meet this coming April against Assumption.
“In recruiting, a lot of the same athletes are looking at us and Assumption,” he said. “Assumption is a great program and a great school. Before this stadium, we struggled to differentiate ourselves. Now when we recruit athletes against anyone, this facility is going to differentiate us. Everything is here now. There are no more searching for facilities.”
The meet against the Greyhounds is scheduled for April 21 and the program is hoping to make it a big event.
“We’re not just going to host a meet, we’re going to get the stereo system going and make it a real fun thing,” Connolly said. “We have that patio up above and we’re going to load that up with alumni, and we’ve even invited Assumption to bring their alumni and make it a great atmosphere. We want to pack the place and make it a big festival. The meet is at 5 p.m. and the sun sets at 7:30 that night, so the lights will be on. It should be a lot of fun.”
Junior Michaela Pernell knows what it was like before. She remembers the rides to North Andover or Haverhill just to get in some training.
“To have it open early in the year really set a positive vibe for the whole season,” she said. “It’s beautiful. To be able to get out of class and head right to practice, it makes it so much easier for all of us now to train and also use our time better.”
Pernell has been one of the most successful sprinters in the history of the program, but her success was somewhat lost behind the incredible performances put in by Carly Muscaro the last four years. Pernell was named to the USTFCCCA All-American First Team last season as a sophomore while also being named All-Region and All-Conference; she also made her first trips to the NCAA Indoor and NCAA Outdoor National Championships.
“Her success is a demonstration of Coach (Peter) Early knowing what he’s doing in developing athletes,” Connolly said. “The spotlight wasn’t on Minnie yet, but she was working so hard with Coach Early her freshman and sophomore year, and now she’s getting that spotlight. She’s developed her swagger and she’s gotten comfortable.”
Connolly said that they chose to start Pernell’s season later this winter in the indoor season, knowing that she has big races ahead later in the year.
“Coach Early is so confident that she’ll make Outdoor Nationals, we’ve put her on a different schedule,” he said.
Pernell already has Merrimack’s top mark in the 55, 60 and 200.
This week, Pernell was named the NE10 Female Track Athlete of the Week for a second straight week. Pernell finished second in the 60-meter dash with a time of 7.51 seconds this past weekend, which is good for second on the NCAA Division II provisional qualifying list. The time was also a school record and best among the Northeast-10 since 2015. She also finished the 200-meter race in 24.57 seconds, which is currently fifth on the Division II qualifier list.
“The coaches have helped he so much,” she said. “They helped me develop a lot as a freshman, even when I was hurt, and then my sophomore year, out of nowhere, I started doing really well and just felt great about myself. Running on the big stages was such a confidence booster. Coach Early has really impacted by track career.
“This year, only running two races, I asked him why he thought I was doing so well. He told me it’s about being comfortable. He’s helped me a lot just reminding me that I do belong on those big stages. You have to remind yourself of that sometimes.”