Pictured: From left, the sprint medley relay team of Matthew Jennings, John Kowal, Kevin Cavrell and Eamon Sweeney nearly broke the state record in June. (Submitted Photo)

By Paul Augeri

An extraordinary year in athletics for Haddam-Killingworth still has one week to go.

Seven members of H-K’s track and field teams, a tremendously talented cross-section of conference and state champs, are departing for the steamy Pacific Northwest and the Outdoor Nationals Presented by Nike. The meet runs Wednesday to Saturday at TrackTown USA — the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field, site of the just-completed U.S. Olympic trials.

Kedarjah Lewis (long jump), Matthew Jennings (800 meters), decathlete Eamon Sweeney and sprint medley relay members John Kowal, Kevin Cavrell, Sweeney and Max Cozean are the six involved after nationals-qualifying performances during the course of the spring season.

“To have one athlete qualify is quite an accomplishment for that individual,” said Cougars coach Matt Diglio, who five years ago sent three different relay teams to the nationals. “To have this number of kids headed there speaks volumes to their talent, the commitment they have had, the obstacles they have overcome for a year and a half. They worked on their own and they stayed positive.”

“It’s a unique group that is really special,” Diglio added, “and what they are doing is extremely rare and impressive. Our programs always tries to do things the right way in how we handle ourselves, and people in the community are aware of that.”

Because the national meet comes well after the end of the academic year, H-K and all other qualifiers will compete as track “clubs” and not officially representing their school. Schools also are barred from providing financial support. A GoFundMe page was launched recently to defray costs of the trip for H-K athletes and their families.

“The community has been very, very gracious — parents, teachers alumni,” Diglio said. “We’re very, very lucky that people have been extremely generous.”

The H-K boys outdoor track and field team won the CIAC Class M championship, the first for the program since 1988. (Contributed Photo)

Cougar teams have had remarkable success in 2020-21, winning Shoreline Conference championships in boys and girls soccer, boy cross country, volleyball, boys lacrosse, and boys and girls outdoor track and field – the first time both track teams won the Shoreline in the same year.

“It was great to be able to celebrate together at the same meet and at the same time,” said Diglio, who also coaches the cross country and indoor teams.

Soon after, the H-K boys won the CIAC Class M championship, their first state title in the sport in 33 years (the 1988 title was preceded by five in seven years for H-K). The girls were as high as second on the board in Class M before finishing eighth.

Lewis, who will compete in soccer and track at Division I Iona, won the state long jump title, her effort of 19 feet, 1 inch shattering her own school record. She also was Class M champion in the event and runner-up in the 100 meters, and a four-event Shoreline champ (100, 200, long jump, triple jump). Incredibly, this was her first outdoor season. Her sophomore year was her first brush with the sport.

“She joined the winter team in 2019 and had an amazing first season running and jumping,” Diglio said. “She’s one of those special athletes that the bigger the meet and the better the competition, she rises to that level. Spring track brought out the best in her. She doesn’t shy away from or get intimidated by competition. It’s a great trait that she has. We’re looking forward to seeing what she does out in Oregon and in college.”

Jennings, who is headed to Yale this fall for cross country and track, won the 800 meters in 1:55.37 at the Class M championships, beating teammate Cozean by 3.45 seconds. He was even faster at the State Open – 1:51.07, better than the best time his coach turned as a high school middle-distance runner in New York state – but finished nearly a second behind Cheshire’s Ryan Farrell.

“Matt ran a great race at the Open. He just got beat by a  kid who ran a better race,” Diglio said (the Cougars finished fourth as a team).

Sweeney, who will go on to compete at the University of Maine, had a choice to make. H-K’s graduation ceremony fell on the same date as Day 2 of the decathlon. He still got his diploma – and wound up crushing the competition with 6,365 points, 858 better than runner-up Joshua Mooney of Stonington.

Sweeney was in the top five in eight events, winning the javelin and 110 hurdles. He also won the Class M title in the 300 hurdles (he was second in the 110) and the jav. Two years ago, he was 18th in the decathlon.

“Eamon had this competition circled on his calendar since he was a sophomore,” Diglio said, “and then I told him, ‘Are you aware you have to pick?’ He said he already told his parents that he would be missing graduation.

“He was focused, he was determined, and again he’s one of those special athletes, so athletic and talented. “Any event we could teach him, he picked up so quickly. He could get it down and mastered in a week or two. He didn’t have a weakness in any of those 10 events. His strength was his ability to excel in all. We needed hurdlers when he was a sophomore and in two years he’s a state champion.”

Spring invitationals usually are the only opportunity in which sprint medley teams can compete, but with most canceled because of COVID protocols, the best chance for Kowal, Cavrell, Sweeney and Jennings to compete came at the Danbury Dream Invitational in mid-June. They qualified for nationals with a time of 3:29.20, just 2 seconds off the state record and nearly 16 seconds better than the previous school mark.

Cozean, the team’s alternate, will step in for Jennings in Oregon. The 800-meter race and the relay are run on the same day a couple of hours apart.

“When we looked on paper we thought we could put together a strong team,” said Diglio. “The kids trained a little longer after the State Open. The Danbury race came together at the last minute. They wanted to go for it. We looked at the state record and the national standard. They crushed our school record and I think they had the third or fourth fastest time in the country. We’re excited to see how they can do against some of the best in the country.”

Diglio is assisted by Sean Gallagher (throws), Evan Woicik (jumps) and longtime coach Dick Dupuis (pole vault and high jump). Diglio will attend the championships with his son, and Woicik will be there, too.

Diglio is all the more pleased with how well the Cougars have performed knowing there wasn’t a true indoor season and the spring championships weren’t a certainty until a week or two before the CIAC’s approval.

“Going to the nationals is a byproduct of their commitment, dedication and persistence throughout these challenges,” the coach said. “To have this number of kids qualify over a wide range of different events is a testament to them.”

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