By MICHAEL KELLY
Recorder Sports Staff
FONDA -- Looking out at his lineup during a recent practice, Fonda-Fultonville boys cross country head coach Mark Therrien laughs off the idea that his program needs to compete with other fall sports, like football, to get the athletes it needs to excel.
"There's not a whole lot of body fat out there," says Therrien, pointing to a collection of runners that includes the rail-thin Matt Hoffman, the team's top runner and this past week's Section II Class C champion.
"Nobody out there is going to hit anyone too hard," Therrien jokes.
But, while not the most imposing group of guys in the world, the F-F boys make up one of the most dominant Section II dynasties in recent memory. The Braves easily won their fourth consecutive sectional championship a week ago and head to today's state championships at the Elma Meadows Golf Course in Elma with a legitimate chance to win a state title.
The seven runners making up the Braves' team for today -- Tyler Angioli, Dylan DeSorbo, Cameron Gilligan, Hoffman, Dalton Hunter, Omijah Piening and Jimmy Westman -- are an interesting group, representing three different grades and having come to the sport through different means.
For Angioli, a senior and the team's No. 2 runner, cross country -- as well as indoor and outdoor track -- became his sport after stints in other sports did not work out. Baseball did not work out, Angioli says, because he had an unfortunate propensity for getting plunked in the batter's box; meanwhile, football just never got his juices going.
"The coaches (for those sports) didn't seem right, the training didn't work for me, and I didn't get along very well with the people," he says. "Then, I got to cross country, and I liked the coaches and the people, and the training worked for me."
So did the skills needed for the sport. Angioli estimates that the Braves run about 50 miles a week during the season, making one of the talents needed to excel in the sport the ability to gut one's way through the training's thankless moments.
"It takes a strong mind, willpower," says Angioli. "You have to be a hard worker. Some people think it's really difficult, but once you try it you get used to it.
"Some people," he finishes, "they have that talent."
Hoffman is one of those people. Now a senior, Hoffman is a runner that had been on Therrien's radar since the senior was in elementary school. Even after Hoffman left the district when his family moved south for a couple years -- Hoffman spent two of his middle-school years in North and South Carolina -- Therrien kept tabs on the runner through email.
"We knew Hoffy early," says Therrien. "We knew he could be a good one."
When Hoffman made it back to F-F for eighth grade, joining up with Therrien's team was an easy decision.
"And it's just stuck ever since then," he says. "I loved it."
A member of each of the Braves' four consecutive sectional-winning squads, Hoffman struggles to put his finger on what it is he loves about the sport. He admits he sometimes finds it tough to get up in the summer from his bed to get in an early-morning run -- but he always does. He credits the sacrifices his parents have made for his running career -- "I'll think about all the stuff they've bought me for running, all the driving they've done, getting me to practices and coming to my meets," he says -- to help him get up on those mornings, but the true reason he never misses a run might come from an even more personal place.
Therrien says the best thing about his Braves -- and his Lady Braves, too; Kim Geniti and Jamie Kasza will compete as individuals at today's state finals -- is that they are each accountable for themselves.
"Individually, these guys are all pretty self-motivated," he says.
Hoffman's an example of that. Going through his team's training regimen for the past week, he says Wednesday's workouts included a section in which the team's members each ran 300-yard dashes, with each subsequent run needing to be done in a quicker time than the one before it.
The Braves made it successfully through that drill -- despite there being no tangible punishment waiting for them if they were unsuccessful. In a sport in which the athletes often wear T-shirts bragging "My sport is your sport's punishment," the Braves' runners must police themselves.
Instead, Hoffman says, the drive comes from within one's self and team.
"When you're going for the top spots in the state like me and [Angioli] and the other guys are, the punishment comes from your teammates nagging you," says Hoffman. "But, really, you've got to deal with yourself. ... If you're not doing what you're supposed to, you're not going to get the results you want."
What the Braves want today is a state championship. Ranked third in the state coming into today's meet, F-F's got as good a chance as anyone to walk away from today's championships with a state crown.
"I think there's going to be four teams in the hunt for it," says Therrien. "It's going to come down to who is more motivated. Hopefully our guys want it more."