Loeden Rodrigues stops short of calling himself the best boys' cross-country runner in the state. Let his results do the talking.
The Marblehead senior cruised to victory in last Sunday’s MSTCA’s Frank Mooney Invitational, completing the 3.1-mile Mark Coogan course in Attleboro in 15 minutes, 55.6 seconds. Rodrigues has now swept the two MSCTA invites after conquering the Frank Kelley 5K. By winning, he satisfied his immense competitive drive.
“Running is cool,” he said, “but I want to be better than people.”
“When we have meets, he already knows who he’s racing, weeks before the meet,” said Marblehead teammate Peter Clifford.
But COVID-19 has its fingerprints all over the season for Rodrigues and his Marblehead teammates. The fall schedule was already off to a late start before a house party on Oct. 23 halted in-person learning and sports at Marblehead until Nov. 7. Rodrigues has competed just three times — the two invitational events and one of the Magicians' two dual meets.
During the two-week ban, Rodrigues could not use team workouts. He has been running around his neighborhood relentlessly, even in the changing New England weather. But it’s hard to replace the structure of a team.
“It definitely caught me off guard, considering we’d gotten the OK to practice just a few weeks before,” he said. “Having those weeks of practice and then [getting] instantly thrown back into practicing on my own was definitely kind of a shock.”
Rodrigues thrives in practice. When some runners groan at the notion of endurance-testing tempo runs, he appreciates how they build stamina. Marblehead coach Brian Heenan remains impressed by the way Rodrigues dissects each workout.
“He understands that that’s what it takes to get better at this level,” Heenan said.
One exercise, “quarter repeats,” is an elimination competition that knocks out the last finisher after each lap on the high school track. The Magicians would specifically try to push the pace in an effort to exhaust their No. 1 runner. But according to Heenan, Rodrigues bided his time in the middle of the pack, and when the field thinned out, he stepped on the gas.
“And he would quietly laugh it off, but you knew inside he was like, ‘No way. You’re not taking me out,’” Heenan said.
That command of race strategy paid off at the Mooney Invite. His wave of elite runners set an underwhelming starting pace. The Marblehead star wanted to take off, but waited for one of his competitors to break from the pack early. When no one stepped up after two miles, Rodrigues finally pressed and never looked back.
As Clifford explains, that final surge is a Loeden Rodrigues staple.
“He’ll do his research, he’ll find out who the No. 1 runners are, he’ll hang with them for the first two miles and he’ll slowly start pulling off,” he said.
“He’s so reserved … you really can’t tell how cerebral he is in his racing. He goes into [a race] and he’s got a game plan,” Heenan added.
Minus the ability to compete against the state’s best in the postseason, Rodrigues turned to what he calls “social media for runners.” He uses the Strava app, which tracks a runner’s workouts and mileage by obtaining feedback from a running watch and posts the data to a personal profile.
During the summer and early fall, Rodrigues checked in on some of his top competitors — Sebastian Gilligan of Masconomet and members of St. John’s Prep, among others — to see how they were training.
“Luckily, it’s kind of developed a nice community,” he said, “so it’s been really good.”
One larger challenge for the senior Magician has been building a senior portfolio to show colleges. He has yet to commit to a school, and although he clocked a 15:37 PR 5K time over the summer, it was technically an unofficial time trial.
“It’s been huge to have the invitationals,” Rodrigues said. “It was a big concern going into the fall that I didn’t have any official times recorded.”
“Those invitationals have had a dramatically positive impact on this college cycle,” said Rodrigues’s father, Gerrick. “And not just the college recruiting cycle, but also Loeden’s perspective on his performance and his ability to perform at a high level.”
Watching Rodrigues succeed is a special treat for Gerrick. The two have run together for most of Loeden’s life. It was at age 14 when Loeden burst ahead of his dad, foreshadowing the same late-race separation he continues to apply today.
“We reached the last 3/10 of a mile; he said, ‘Let’s kick it.’ And he just took off,” said Gerrick. “At that point, I thought: that’s how it’s going to be.”
Setting the pace
▪ On the girls' side of the Mooney, Holliston freshman Carmen Luisi dominated, finishing in 18:40.3, well ahead of second-place Sarah Ross of Agawam (18:56.0).
Luisi’s run as a first-year may seem surprising, but she is a budding star in the region. Last year she earned USA Track & Field’s (USATF) New England Athlete of the Year award and finished third in the 1,500 among 316 runners in the age 13-14 division at Wisconsin’s USATF Junior Olympic National Championships.
This season, along with her Frank Mooney win, Luisi has commanded the Tri-Valley League circuit. The Panthers are 4-0 and the freshman has won every meet. Along the way, Luisi and the Panthers beat Hopkinton on Oct. 17, ending the Hillers' 41-race conference win streak.
“[It’s] always a fear, that when you have a rising star and people are talking about them, that they might get overwhelmed or nervous on this different stage,” said Holliston coach Jaime Murphy. “But she’s been incredible so far and she’s really taken to the role as our No. 1 runner.”
The ceiling is sky-high for Luisi, though she has had few chances to show it this fall. Her goal for the remainder of the season is to break Holliston’s 3.1-mile course record. On Wednesday she came up just six seconds short of the 18:48 time. Luisi gets one more shot on Saturday against Ashland.
“If she can break the record as a freshman, it’s no holds barred for this girl, which is fantastic to see,” Murphy said.
▪ By all accounts, the Frank Mooney Invitational went smoothly from a procedural perspective. Meet director James Fletcher was again proud of the effort from the staff; the MSTCA has now sanctioned two events that went off without a hitch.
Fletcher is hopeful that a third race could run the weekend of Nov. 21-22, again at Highland Park with a similar wave-based format. However, he and the MSTCA will first comb through the EEA’s new guidelines for athletics to see if any major policy changes are on the horizon.
“We just have to wait and see on [the guidelines] and kind of go from there, and see if we can apply them appropriately,” Fletcher said.
▪ The Hockomock League already scheduled its title race for Nov. 14, with each school entering 10 boys and 10 girls for the race. The Patriot League championship is slated for Wednesday and will be run on Hingham’s home course with seeded waves of 10 runners — similar to the MSTCA invites. Hingham coach Todd Deely will serve as meet director.