To bring high school cross-country back to the Boston Public Schools, Hatim Jean-Louis and his team have to make sacrifices.
Sometimes that means navigating the city’s public transportation just to get to practice. Other times, it means training in the woods at Franklin Park in cold conditions on pitch-black evenings.. When the Boston city-wide cross-country teams line up at meets, they know they’re different from other programs — and are fueled by what sets them apart.
“I believe we do have a chip on our shoulder,” said Latin Academy senior Max Barcan. “Sometimes that toughness that you gain, that greediness that you’ve gained from coaches and teammates and representing the city — it’s very motivating. You’re leaving the city and that’s the representation of Boston.”
Jean-Louis, a former state champion in the 600 meters at Randolph (Class of 1996), created the city-wide team in 2015 after cross-country had been dormant as a BPS sport for nearly a decade. He started with a ragtag group of six runners that has since grown to 40. Most of the roster comes from Latin Academy and O’Bryant, but students from Fenway, Madison Park, New Mission and East Boston have also joined the squad.
‘I think I’m inspired by everybody on this team, because it’s unlikely that this group of people would come together.’
Max Barcan, a Latin Academy senior on the growth of the Boston city-wide cross-country team from six runners in 2015 to a group of 40.
“There was a culture that did not exist here,” Jean-Louis said. “We as Bostonians, the only time the city kids even see running — they may hear the [Boston] Marathon, but we don’t run [cross-country] here in Boston Public Schools. I was so motivated; I was driven from 2015 to build the culture up piece by piece. What you’re seeing now is a result of the hard work that was put in in 2015.”
The group meets at a variety of locations and will run downtown, along the water or in Franklin Park. Having six schools currently involved is a welcome sign of progress. It also means that, with three different school dismissal times, practices don’t typically start until close to 5:00, after most schools have completed their final cool-down stretches.
“I think it’s just about commitment,” said O’Bryant senior Sam Gordon, the program’s top boys’ runner. “We all, I think, have stronger commitment than a typical team — just to the sport and to training — just because we have to come from so many different schools and different places, and all come together.”
The runners attest that Jean-Louis’s unrivaled energy, transferred in his fiery pep talks and “Word of the Day,” has helped him coach his runners up to compete against the state’s best. He’ll admit that when he started, and the boys’ team finished dead last at the 2015 state meet, he had self-doubts about his own coaching ability, believing titles and accolades were the only measure of success.
In the seven years since, “Coach H” has understood that personal and program development can supersede any trophy. Barcan joined the boys’ team as a “real slow” eighth-grader from Latin Academy, and Jean-Louis ran beside him his entire first season as he learned how to run distance. Now he’s a senior captain and an integral piece of a squad looking to make All-States for the first time ever as a team.
“I think I’m inspired by everybody on this team, because it’s unlikely that this group of people would come together,” Barcan said.
Maia Poremba, a junior from Latin Academy, joined as a freshman with zero running experience. She ran a 25:32 5K in the 2021 Frank Kelley Invitational; in a year’s time, she slashed a whopping four-and-a-half minutes off, with a 21:00 clocking in the same meet last Saturday.
“I’ve mostly learned how to race, because that is actually a big part mentally, when you have to track down other opponents,” Poremba said. “It’s not as simple as just running, because oftentimes running isn’t seen as very skill-based. But I definitely have been taught skills, [like] how to race and stuff.”
Poremba leads an eight-girl roster with Latin Academy’s Neve Flynn, a spring track Globe All-Scholastic and the fastest freshman at the Frank Kelley (20:07.8). Flynn might be the brightest young star in the program, but she’s also already a captain, and has helped lead a group of inexperienced girls with Poremba.
“If we want them to succeed, and we want the girls’ team to succeed, we need to have them working hard, and I think, so far, they’re enjoying it,” Flynn said. “You just have to be encouraging because, obviously, a lot of people know what it’s like to be starting out at first.”
Jean-Louis recognizes the extra hurdles facing his runners. But to him, it’s an opportunity to show a group of young people that no challenge — be it a competitive time, a high placing or an off-track obstacle — is impossible to overcome.
“I don’t want to sugarcoat: You’re a city kid, man,” he said. “The world’s tough. This is another way of me showing the younger generation how to conquer the world.”
▪ Cambridge sophomore Aoife Shovlin turned in a breakout performance at the Kelley Invitational. Shovlin stayed nearly stride-for-stride with eventual winner Camille Jordan of Brookline and finished second in 18:22.5.
Coach Ian Woodhouse said Shovlin was in line for a big day after a strong spring track season, where she finished eighth in the mile at All-States. That success showed what she was capable of if she committed to the necessary training, which Shovlin did over the summer.
“I think placing so well at All-States outdoors might have maybe given her a sign that, ‘Okay, if I actually put a little more work into this, I can end up in a pretty good place,’” Woodhouse said.
Shovlin was part of a strong all-around outing from the Falcons. Junior Eliza Dickie finished 16th for the girls (19:36.4). Cambridge logged a fifth-place team showing on the boys’ side, led by brothers Jacob Bronstein (6th, 15:49.6) and Daniel Bronstein (19th, 16:27.0).
▪ Saturday’s MSTCA Team Challenge brings a twist to the schedule in its second year of competition. Schools bring teams of seven to Wrentham Developmental Center, with three runners completing a 5K “Long Course”, two running a 3K “Medium Course” and two more going through a 2K “Short Course.” Scoring uses cumulative times to determine a winner.
St. John’s Prep, Newton South and Newburyport are among the standout schools on the entry list for Saturday.
Meets to watch
Monday, No. 7 Burlington at No. 14 Wakefield boys, 4 p.m. — The top two teams from last year’s Division 2 All-State meet go head-to-head in a Middlesex League clash.
Wednesday, Billerica vs. No. 5 Lowell vs. No. 6 North Andover at Dracut boys, 4 p.m. — This Merrimack Valley Conference quad-meet includes two Division 1 frontrunners and a stellar junior in Billerica’s Ryan Leslie.
Wednesday, No. 8 Billerica vs. Lowell vs. No. 11 North Andover at Dracut girls, 4 p.m. — The same quad-meet brings added intrigue on the girls’ side, with Billerica looking to test itself in-league after a strong showing at last Saturday’s Frank Kelley Invitational.
Wednesday, No. 16 Concord-Carlisle at No. 4 Acton-Boxborough girls, 4 p.m. — The Revolution have a dynamic top-four and they’ll be put to the test against a perennial power in the Patriots.
Thursday, Milton vs. No. 10 Newton North at No. 12 Weymouth girls, 4 p.m. — Another quality Bay State Conference showdown features two Globe Top 20 teams and an always-competitive Wildcats squad.
Thursday, Peabody at No. 18 Marblehead boys, 4 p.m. — The presumptive favorites out of the Northeastern Conference face off.