Marblehead’s great tradition in track has another runner coming up through the ranks, who is beginning to turn heads as a Marblehead High School freshman after a sensational fall on the state’s cross-country courses.
Her name is Marri O’Connell, and one of those heads she turned first was MHS girls cross-country coach William Herlihy.
“Coming into this season, I didn’t have any expectations, because Marri had never run cross-country before,” Herlihy said. “But during the first week of the season, she finished first in our 2-mile time trial, and so it quickly became clear that she would be one of our top runners.”
Herlihy continued, “In the first dual meet of the season, we went up against Gloucester at Ravenswood Park, where Marri took first by over a minute after running a 21:51 on a course that’s a full 5k. Not only is that a strong time, but she was barely winded after crossing the finish line. I knew at that point she would be our best runner this season.”
Only a couple of days after the Gloucester meet on Sept. 10, Marri was the anchor leg on the Magicians’ top team at the Clipper Relays in Newburyport, an annual event consisting of individual schools that assemble multiple teams of three to run a 2-mile loop, with the anchor running a little extra to complete the course. Marblehead’s aforementioned top team finished 14th overall, with Marri splitting a 12:37, an impressive time for an open 2-mile on a track surface, let alone on a trail loop that includes a significant hill, according to Herlihy.
A lot of cross-country training is based upon setting goals, while establishing a pace time, but Herlihy’s challenge for Marri this fall was to determine what her actual pace should be, because she got better every day.
“I kept on setting a target, and she would smash it in the next race,” said Herlihy. “Following the Clipper Relays, Marri continued to improve dramatically. She finished the regular season undefeated with five firsts, but it was racing in the big invitational meets where she really shined.”
On Sept. 24, O’Connell won the Ocean State Invitational freshman race in Rhode Island by 36 seconds, turning in a 16:06 on the 4k course against competitors throughout the New England region.
A couple of weeks later on Oct. 14, the young Marblehead star finished fourth in the Glennon.
Twilight Invitational Large School Division. It was only the second time she ran a true 5k this fall, and ended up running it in 18:46.2, albeit without one of her shoes in the final 200-meters.
“It was already clear to me that Marri was a special talent, but this race in particular cemented her as a truly exceptional runner,” Herlihy said. “She had once again taken my targeted goal for a pace time (19:30), and shattered it by nearly 45 seconds. It was nearly an unprecedented jump at this level.”
On Saturday, Oct. 29, under perfect racing conditions, O’Connell ended up second to Sarah DiVasta of Peabody during the annual Northeastern Conference Meet at Stage Fort Park in Gloucester. DiVasta is a well-known elite harrier.
“It was not the result (O’Connell) had hoped for, but often our toughest races can be the most important,” said Herlihy.
Following that loss, O’Connell showed even more determination, much to the chagrin of her peers in the Division 1C Stare Meet two weeks later, where she finished second with an outstanding time of 18:35.2 on the 5k course. It qualified her for the State Individual Championships at Fort Devens in Ayer on Saturday, Nov. 19.
Marri was confident that she could compete on the varsity level as a freshman, but maybe not this well.
“I had a feeling that I could run in the low 20s, but I was surprised at how quickly I was able to break 19 minutes in a 5k,” she said during an interview with the Marblehead Current earlier this week.
But the amazing part of her story is the fact that track was never a priority. She concentrated mostly on playing soccer and basketball after coming to Marblehead four years ago.
“This is my first-time running cross-country, and I attribute these early results to my competitive mindset, while playing multiple sports in the past,” said O’Connell.
O’Connell admits she was somewhat scared at the start of the NEC Meet, but at the state divisional meet, she felt there was nothing to lose.
“I was relatively relaxed at the start of the divisional meet,” she said. “I planned for a fast start, and was confident that I could keep up that pace throughout the race.”
O’Connell continued, “I did not really change my strategy. I was able to sustain my pace that I set prior to it. I was targeting a top-seven finish, and felt strong all the way to the end.”
Marri, who has a younger sister – Mckenna – credits the encouragement of her parents Matt and Mimi O’Connell for her early desire to run track.
“They even did one of my Girls on the Run fun events with me, when I was in the fourth grade,” she said. “That helped build my confidence early on. They always challenged me to do my best, and to never give up. They have always supported me no matter what.”
O’Connell continued, “I also think my teammates were very supportive, and my coach helped with my pacing during workouts. Together, they encouraged me to enjoy the season with no pressure.”
O’Connell will be getting ready soon for basketball tryouts. She enjoys the team aspect and different elements of each sport, but with three years to go, she is already planning on running in college, where she wants to major in veterinary medicine, because of her love for animals.
But that’s long term. In the moment, her coaches are just happy she’s a Magician right now. “While there is no doubt that Marri is an exceptional talent, she still earned all of her successes this season,” said Herlihy. “She put the work in day in and day out, including training over the summer during captains’ practices. What she has already accomplished is astonishing, but this is only the beginning. With her work ethic and competitive spirit, the sky’s the limit.”
Herlihy added, “But it’s not just her racing that makes Marri such an invaluable part of our team. It’s also her smiling and cheerful personality. Marri brings an unmatched energy to practice every day, and I’m very much looking forward to having her on our team for the next three years.”