It’s not easy building something from scratch.

Just ask Trumbull Athletic Director Mike King, who’s been overseeing the implementation of a middle school cross country program that unites runners from both Madison Middle School and Hillcrest Middle School this fall.

However, instead of the growing pains associated with an infant program, King has only seen the young runners flock to the athletic fields and flourish in competition, representing their respective schools and quickly putting Trumbull cross country on the map at the middle school level.

“The first year has been awesome,” said King, who noted that between the two schools, 117 kids have participated in the inaugural season.

“They’re having a lot of fun out there,” he added. “It’s a fun, healthy option for them after school that’s good for them socially, too, and that’s what’s most important.”

It doesn’t hurt, though, that the first-year team has already captured a first-place finish, as the Madison Middle School girl’s team did at the Wickham Invitational on Oct. 10.

“All four teams have had success in terms of wins and losses, but the most important thing is that the coaches can see the individual progress and they’re impressed with how dedicated these kids have become in just year one,” King said.

Hillcrest’s team is coached by Christie Kania, who formerly coached the field hockey team at Trumbull High School and now works at the middle school as a teacher. Madison’s coach is John Mastrianni, who works with the high school’s girl’s cross country team in the spring.

King isn’t shy that the hopeful outcome of developing a middle school cross country program is to one day feed the high school’s teams; however, he realizes it requires more than a crawl- walk-run-type of progression.

“My goal is to build out middle school sports in Trumbull, and add programs like a middle school track and field team,” he said. “That would include a lot of middle-distance running and some other activities in the spring that the kids won’t be exposed to in the fall cross country season.”

For the first year, the middle school teams won’t be competing in the spring, which means their schedule consists of seven invitationals this fall and the state championship competition on Saturday, Nov. 7.

King enjoys the flexibility of being in the early stages of program development.

“With middle schools, you can create various dates and create a very flexible schedule,” he said.

The team has competed in the Bridgeport Invitational, the Fairfield Invitational and the New Canaan Invitational already this year, with the biggest event of the year coming Friday, Oct. 30, when the two middle schools compete against each other at Trumbull High School.

“That’ll be the real highlight of the year,” he said.

In terms of commitment, King said, the young runners have dedicated anywhere from three to six days a week in this first season, depending on the schedule’s demands.

His goal is to have both teams practice four to five days a week when the program returns next fall.

“They’re getting exposed to quality coaching, which is huge,” King said. “But it takes time to develop into a really competitive runner — it takes a lot of practice to be successful; it doesn’t happen immediately.”

Good habits

Trumbull High School cross country head coach Jim McCaffrey agrees with the practice-makes-perfect mind-set.

“Cross country is a sport that requires creating good habits in your life,” he told The Times. “You have to train consistently, you have to eat right, and you have to learn to balance your priorities. It takes poise and maturity to run consistently.”

McCaffrey, who also competes as a runner, said that it also takes a lot to train your body so that it’s strong enough to endure six days a week of running.

“It needs to be able to handle the easy days, the speed work days, the tempo days, and the long -distance days,” he said. “I spend a great deal of time at the beginning of a season easing my athletes into this, because very few have ever run a structured six-day-a-week training program. It sometimes takes one to two years for your stride and race pace to improve to a point where you are competing at a high level.”

Of course, some of McCaffrey’s runners are running their first races as high schoolers — something that could be changing very soon with the middle school program in development.

“How will a middle school program influence our high school program? We will be acquiring athletes with experience,” he said. “Runners who have dealt with the stress of a race and the strain of a training program.

“Basically, I will be getting athletes who have already built a baseline,” he added.

A love for running

King and McCaffrey have high expectations for the high school’s cross country program, which are already beginning to trickle down to Trumbull’s newest and youngest runners.

“I want runners to want to run in our program because we teach a love of running and have a team that competes to be the top of our division, the FCIACs, and the state,” McCaffrey said. “I want the middle school coaches to want the same thing. Coach Mastrianni and Coach Kania are both very knowledgable and willing to involve me in their programs — Coach Kania shares a similar philosophy as I do, as does Coach Mastrianni. …

“We all spread a very similar message,” he added.

The athletic director and running coach point to the Wickham Invitational as the perfect example of how a shared philosophy between middle school and high school programs can produce the highest results — and something even better than finishing atop the scoreboard.

“The Wickham course is the state championship course,” McCaffrey said. “The middle school girls of Madison won the entire meet, beating Tolland Middle School. Tolland's high school program is the defending state champion. This is a huge deal. The girls of Madison ran as a team and showed some real potential.

“It is exciting,” he added about the moment the middle schoolers won and saw their high school counterparts watching and cheering them on.

“The high teams got to see them run and share in their success,” McCaffrey said. “Kate Romanchick, the No. 1 runner on the high school cross country team, who right now has won all but two of the races she has participated in this year, got to speak to the middle schoolers before their run and give them advice about overcoming race anxiety.

“In the end, there are very few programs that get the chance to make this kind of connection.”

The high school coach credits the athletic director and the athletic department at Trumbull High for its vision.

“It’s a credit to all the coaches who have invested so much in the athletes and the programs,” he said.

Future

King said that some middle school runners won’t continue on to the high school program, and that’s fine.

“Some will be recreational runners; some will take it further and be competitive,” he said. “The key is the exposure which we hope leads to a lifelong passion of running, regardless of the competition. …

“The physical benefit will last for years.”

He said cross country was a “no brainer” in starting a movement toward developing a middle school athletics program.

“With cross country, you get a lot of kids involved without cuts,” he said. “It’s limitless in the number of people who compete, and you don’t have to say no to anybody, and that’s what makes it so ideal.

“You can’t do that in all sports, like soccer or basketball,” he added. “Anyone who’s interested in running can join.”

Looking ahead, he’d like the next middle school program to be one where there are no cuts.

It’ll help to have built-in support, like what the middle school cross country program has enjoyed with its exposure to the high school team and its athletes.

“Trumbull High runners will volunteer at the meet Friday and they will be there cheering on the middle school runners,” King said. “It’s a nice dynamic to have that built-in support system, and we all know the young kids will love competing against each other instead of other towns this time around.”