Led WMHS boys’ cross country team to a historic 2016 season
Published in the December 7, 2016 edition
By VIN SYLVIA
WAKEFIELD — After a good but unremarkable cross country season in 2014, then-Wakefield Memorial High School sophomore Ryan Sullivan decided — on a whim, without having qualified — to compete in the Foot Locker Cross Country Northeast Regional at Van Cortland Park in the Bronx, N.Y. As he prepared to compete in the meet’s Open Division race, Sullivan was surprised to see his WMHS coach, Perry Pappas, there to support him.
“It was an open race. It meant nothing,” Sullivan recalled. “But Pappas made the trip to New York to see me run. The passion he had as a coach was so great — for me, that was the turning point. I thought, if he has that kind of passion as a coach, I should have the same passion as a runner.”
Two years later, Sullivan is coming off a senior season in which he was a Wakefield captain and second-time Middlesex League All-Star and a key member of this year’s EMass Division 4 championship team.
And Pappas? Having led the Warriors to the state sectional title, the Middlesex League Freedom division championship and a second place finish in the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association All-State Division 2 race, he’s been named the Boston Globe’s Boys’ Cross Country Division 2 Coach of the Year.
“That means the world to me and every guy on the team,” Sullivan said of Pappas’ recognition from New England’s largest newspaper. “I don’t know of anyone more deserving. I think I wanted that for him as much as I wanted us to win All-States.”
Overseeing one of the best seasons in Wakefield cross country history was what earned Pappas the Globe honor but the award actually was several years in the making. The year before Pappas joined the Wakefield High cross country program as an assistant coach, the Warriors failed to win a race. In his four seasons as head coach, the WMHS boys have gone 23-2 in the M.L. Freedom division.
Those are the numbers.
What the numbers don’t show is the time and individual attention Pappas has devoted to each of his team’s runners, including several with special needs, and to the WMHS girls’ team, whose members frequently salute his work in support of head coach Karen Barrett, a hugely successful mentor in her own right.
“He’s so dedicated,” K-12 Director of Athletics, Health, and Wellness for the Wakefield Public Schools Brendan Kent said of Pappas. “He truly, truly cares about all the kids. Hours after the last athlete has left the school, I’ve seen him working on designing individual workouts for the kids. His level of dedication, his level of caring, is incredible.”
The Globe will publish its fall All-Scholastic special section as part of its Sunday, Dec. 18 editions. Fittingly, Pappas will be honored along with one of his runners, junior Matt Greatorex.
“I’m very proud of Matt,” Pappas said. “It’s a great honor as a coach to be recognized by the Globe, but it means even more for an athlete to be recognized. It’s a huge accomplishment for Matt to earn that honor.”
Characteristically, Pappas — who also coaches the distance and middle-distance runners on the WMHS boys’ indoor and outdoor track and field teams — credited his own honor to his team.
“The kids had such a great season,” he said. “I definitely have to thank them for working so hard.”
For all concerned, the hard work paid off.
In addition to Sullivan and Greatorex, Wakefield’s Adam Roberto, Nick McGee and Tommy Lucey each earned M.L. All-Star honors. As a team, the Warriors – whose only dual meet loss was a 24-32 defeat to Division 1 powerhouse Lexington, a race in which Sullivan was injured — finished second to Lexington in the overall Middlesex League Championship Meet before capturing their first EMass sectional title since 1982.
With a squad of 35 runners, Wakefield also won the Middlesex League junior varsity race and placed second to Lexington in the league freshman race, displaying the kind of depth that indicates the overall strength of the program Pappas has built. With Greatorex, Lucey and a wealth of other hard-working, talented underclassmen due to return next year, Wakefield is certain to contend for more championships.
It will be difficult, though, for the Warriors to match their performance in this year’s EMass Division 4 race. Competing at the Wrentham Developmental Center, Wakefield placed four of its five scoring runners in the top 10 – led by individual champion Greatorex — in bettering runner-up Melrose by an astounding 61 points, 38-99.
“That was the big goal from the time the boys began offseason workouts,” Pappas said of the EMass title. “Winning that race definitely was the highlight — for the kids and myself.”
Greatorex credited a bit of sports psychology from his coach for propelling the Warriors to such an extraordinary performance that day. Minutes before the race, he said, Pappas gathered the seven Wakefield runners competing in the event and gave them some mantras to recite when pain inflicted their body or doubts invaded their mind: “I believe in myself. I believe in my team. I believe in my training.”
Experiencing both pain and doubt as he entered the final 400 meters locked in a duel with Melrose’s Adam Cook, Greatorex recalled Pappas’ words and surged ahead, his finishing kick enabling him to edge his neighboring rival by less than a second, 16 minutes 19.23 seconds to 16:20.19.
Roberto, a senior captain, finished fourth, covering the 3.1-mile course in 16:36.64. Fellow senior McGee was right behind, placing fifth, in 16:37.17. Lucey, a junior, came in seventh, in 16:47.7. Sullivan, battling a painful side stitch, clinched the sectional title with a gutsy 21st-place showing, in 17:06.59.
“That’s a big part of what makes him such a great coach,” Greatorex said of Pappas’ last-minute words of wisdom. “It isn’t just the workouts he designs for each of us; it’s the positive self-thought, the way he gets you believing in yourself.”
One week after the EMass race, competing on the hilly course of the Gardner Municipal Golf Course, Wakefield made a strong bid for the MIAA All-State Division 2 title but fell shy of perennial Central Mass. champion Hopedale, 89-108. Newburyport was a distant third, with 178 points.
Over the course of the 2016 season, Wakefield had developed a highly competitive but friendly rivalry with Hopedale. The Warriors finished second to the Blue Raiders in the Frank Kelley Invitational on Oct. 1 and tied them in the Cape Cod Twilight meet two weeks later, Hopedale ultimately earning victory in the latter race via a tiebreaker.
After the state championship race, members of the Hopedale team visited the Wakefield team tent to commend the Warriors for pushing them to be their best and complimented Wakefield on its sportsmanship. After the post-race awards ceremony, the two teams united for a group photo.
That, said Kent, may be the truest measure of Pappas’ leadership.
“I like to say, ‘Our most important job is to produce great people, and the best way an athletic director can help produce great people is to have great coaches,’” Kent said. “Coaches don’t get any better than Perry Pappas. I’m so proud to have him on the Wakefield High staff as a head coach.”