The conference has been the breeding grounds for the best hurdlers in the state and the entire Northeast.
Over the years, the Merrimack Valley Conference has been arguably the best in the state when it comes to track-and-field competition. With the likes of Lowell, Andover, Central Catholic, Tewksbury and North Andover, among others, there’s been plenty of championship banners in each of those high schools, while those programs have sent countless number of athletes to premier Division 1 colleges across the country.
That being said, in on particular event, the 55-meter hurdles, the MVC has proven time and time again that it’s again arguably the top in the state.
Last year, there were a combined 47 male and female hurdlers who competed at the All-State Meet and 12 of them came from the MVC – that’s 26 percent. Of those 12, there were seven who finished in the top ten including Haverhill’s Jayla Kitchings, who was first in the girls meet with a time of 8.43 seconds.
The two years before that, a total of 15 other athletes from the MVC competed at the All-State Meet. Over the last three years on the girls side, there’s been seven top ten finishes including a first, second, fourth, fifth, eighth and a pair of tenths, and on the boys side there’s been seven as well with a second, a pair of fifths, a sixth, an eighth, a ninth and also a pair of tenths.
“The hurdles in our league has traditionally been a very strong event,” said Lowell High Boys coach Scott Ouellet. “Last year it was so strong that (current Lowell High senior) Sam (Mutiso) was having a hard time even winning a dual meet because there were so many great kids. It’s incredible. It’s probably why the kids now are doing as well as they have been doing because the kids from the previous years have done so well.
“Another reason (for the success) is there’s a lot of coaches in the league, who love the hurdles. They really take a lot of pride in coaching it, they know what they are talking about and they know how to coach a kid in the hurdles. It’s not easy. (Coaching a kid in) the (55-meter) dash is easy. In the hurdles, you have to learn technique and really practice at it. As Sam has grown into his body, it’s just been repetition, repetition and repetition. Especially for the boys, you have to pay your dues. These hurdles are so tall and so forceful, a boy just has to go out there and take his lumps.”
So far this year that tradition has seemed to carry on. On the boys side, Mutiso is among one of the top hurdlers in the state — with returning All-State Champ David Peters of Stoughton at the top – but has been the top in the conference with the likes of Lawrence’s Jordany Volquez, a sophomore, Tewksbury senior Zach LaLonde and Central’s Nathan Hebert.
“The league is very competitive (in the hurdles), even though we are missing some guys from last year,” said Mutiso. “I’m just really happy to be where I am right now especially with my friend Jordany and Zach as they are pushing me to run even faster.”
Most hurdlers take eight steps out of the blocks before they reach the first hurdle and then three inbetween each one after that. For Mutiso, he takes seven to the first one.
“To take eight steps for me, my strides are so long so I always crash into the hurdle so I don’t do that now with seven steps,” he said, while noting that he has already qualified for the New Balance National Meet.
During the Jan. 9 MVC Dual Meet, LaLonde had an unusual subpar performance finishing 15th, but he’s coming off a year where he was third at the MVC Championships, second at the Eastern Mass Division 3 Meet and then ninth at the All-State Meet.
“In the league, between Samuel, Jordany and myself, I think we’re all pretty close to one another and I feel like when it comes to the MVC Championship Meet, it’ll come down to the three of us,” said LaLonde. “(Sam and I) both feed off of each other. When you have someone as fast or faster than you, it makes you run faster and I think that’s where most of our personal records come from, because we’re all facing other guys with similar speed.”
He was asked about the seven or eight step strategy.
“I do the eight steps because I need it,” he said. “If Sam does seven it’s because he has more power. He needs less steps because if he took eight, he would get all wound up because the hurdle would be too close to him. I take eight steps because I’m just used to running in a certain form so I don’t take as long and powerful strides as him.”
On the female side, last year Kitchings finished second at the MVC Meet and went on to take first at both the D1 and All-State Meets. Central Catholic’s Katharine Duren, now a junior, bested Kitchings at the MVC Meet, and went on to be the Division 2 champion before falling during the All-State Meet to finish eighth.
She said that technique and form is why she’s been able to be so successful.
“I have the speed but the technical part is hard,” she said. “Where your foot is, where you take off – if you take off to close, you’re going to hit the hurdle and if you take off too far away, you’re going to miss the hurdle. You have to take off at a certain spot. It’s all about driving and keeping the right speed inbetween (each hurdle). It is a three-step race, so you just have to really work on that and work on making sure everything stays in line.
“The littlest things can make you fall or just disrupt the entire race. Last year the All-States, I hit a hurdle and ended up falling. It’s just the littlest of things that can set something off. You need to just keep working on it. If you keep doing it, you’ll get better. It’s just muscle-memory and if you’ll work on it, you’ll get better.”
Last year the league was loaded with Kitchings, Duren, then freshman Jodi Parrott of Andover, as well as Tewksbury’s Stephanie Baptiste and Chelmsford’s Meghan Stagnone, who all finished within the top 24 in the entire state. Parrott didn’t compete in the hurdles on Thursday, but the meet before she was second to Duren with a time of 8.85.
“(Duren) has beaten me almost every time. There might have been one meet at the beginning of last year that I beat here and I think that’s the time that she fell (during the middle of the race), so that was the only time,” said Parrott with a laugh. “She’s an amazing athlete. She has just been jumping ahead with super big increments (of improved time). She’s also a real good long jumper. She is someone who I definitely look up to and she is just such a good sportsman, a friend and a competitor.”
Trying to catch up to her in all but one meet over nearly two years, has certainly helped Parrott get much better at her craft. But like everyone else, she said it’s all about the proper technique, and being able to display that consistency.
“I’m still pretty new to the form. (Duren’s) been doing it longer so I feel that she’s been able to perfect her form more, but speed wise I think we are pretty much the same,” she said. “She’s been doing it more and I think hurdles is one of those things you have to keep on doing. I use eight steps to the first (hurdle) and three (to the others). That’s what she does too. My legs can’t fit anymore steps – I have very long legs. Three steps is kind of the goal for a hurdler and it was good for me because I was able to do that right away and get ahead. I got a jump start over other people in my grade, so hopefully that gives me a jump start for the other big races and meets that are coming up to get more experience.”
Besides Parrott, Lowell’s Deborah Ofodile has been impressive, while Central’s Carla Bouchrouche and Billerica’s Emma Hallet have also been improving quite a bit.
“Each year it seems like everyone in the league is progressing and getting better,” said Duren. “It’s just such great competition. I’m excited to see how we all grow as people and competitors. We’re all really good and competitive with each other and we’re obviously competitive, but we’re also friendly with each other. This is the most competitive it’s been in my three years. The MVC is really hard.”