Natalie Mako blazes trail for Frontier Regional
Natalie Mako of Frontier is 7-0 this season with five course records. BULLETIN FILE PHOTO Purchase photo reprints »
SOUTH DEERFIELD — The question posed to 35-year Frontier Regional cross country coach Bob Smith was: “Have you ever seen anyone dominate the sport the way Natalie Mako has this season?” Before he heard the ‘t’ in the word ‘dominate,’ Smith responded with a definitive, “No.”
Mako, a senior and six-year member of the Red Hawks’ girls cross country team, has taken center stage in western Massachusetts this season. In Frontier’s seven meets this season, Mako has won each one and set five course records along the way.
“Since I’ve been coaching, I’ve had some really wonderful cross country girls who were really terrific runners,” Smith said. “But no one has been performing like this, each day is some sort of interesting spectacle to watch with Natalie.”
Mako wasn’t always this fast. She suffered a stress fracture in her leg at the end of her sophomore year and was sidelined for a portion of the summer. Mako, who expected a breakout junior year, showed up to the first practice on crutches and missed the first race of the season. Even after she returned, it took time for her to improve.
“I think I could have had a better season if I wasn’t injured,” Mako said. “But with the support of my coaches and my teammates I was able to get through.”
Thanks to a unique workout regimen that included cross training on her bicycle and lots of swimming, Mako strengthened her leg and was healthy enough to run in the postseason races.
Not only did she return, she made a splash in both events.
Mako finished in second place out of 143 runners in the WMass Division 2 meet. Emily Kaegi of Mount Greylock outlasted her by almost 19 seconds.
Next, she took 16th out of 178 runners in the D2 state meet. This time she finished two spots ahead of Kaegi.
As tough as the injury was for Mako, Smith believes that it made her a stronger runner.
“Sometimes it’s a good thing when athletes realize the gift they have, and if they can’t access that gift, then that makes a difference in their mental preparation and the way they look at everything,” Smith said. “I’m not saying the injury was good for her, but in a way it made her realize a lot of things, like how to train better and how to communicate better with us.”
Mako carried the momentum gained from the end of her junior season into this one.
She began her senior year by overtaking Frontier’s 2.75-mile course record with a time of 15:43.
A week later, Mako claimed another course record, this time at Whiting Reservoir (2.72 miles) in Holyoke. She completed the course in 16:06 and beat former Holyoke Catholic standout Kristen Veit’s time by five seconds.
Her next race garnered similar results as she won at Forest Park (2.81 miles) in Springfield, and broke her third straight course record with a time of 17:09. Mako beat the record, set in 2005, by 36 seconds.
“I didn’t expect to come in and do as well as I’ve done,” Mako said.
Her only nonrecord race came in a rainy tri-meet against Amherst Regional and South Hadley in Amherst. She won the 3.1-mile race in 18:50, but her record-breaking streak ended. Amber Sayer of Amherst holds the 2003 mark at 18:44. Smith believed that if not for inclemenet weather, she would have broken the record.
It didn’t take Mako long to get back in the record books as one race later, she overtook Ludlow’s course mark, set by former Longmeadow star Camille Blackman, with a time of 18:29 — 21 seconds better than Blackman.
“We don’t tell her she has to go out there and do this or do that, we tell her to run as relaxed and as happy as she can, and that’s when she does best,” Smith said.
One meet later on Oct. 16, Mako surpassed another Blackman record, this time at Turner Park in Longmeadow. She blazed through the 3.1-mile course in 18:23, and beat Blackman’s record by one second. Consider, on Oct. 11 the previous year, Blackman won at Turner Park in 18:28 and Mako was fifth in 21:20.
She was honored to pass one of her idols this season.
“That’s just amazing to me, because I could never really think to be compared to her on that level,” Mako said.
Mako’s most recent performance, may have been her best. On Oct. 23, the Red Hawks were back at Frontier squaring off with Turners Falls in the final meet before the postseason.
Mako, again, won the race easily, and broke the course record she set earlier in the year. But this was no ordinary meet. The boys and girls from both teams ran the same race at the same time, and Mako beat every single runner.
“She’s been having a great year, and all I hope is that she stays healthy and is able to finish it strong,” Smith said.
Mako will look to carry her dominance into the postseason races starting with the PVIAC Championships Saturday at Stanley Park in Westfield.
The WMass championship is Nov. 10. The state meet is on Nov. 17. Both races are at Northfield Mountain Recreation Facility.
Mako said that a WMass championship would be great, but she doesn’t want to put that kind of pressure on herself.
“There’s tough competition this year in Western Massachusetts cross country, anything can happen,” Mako said.
Like Mako, Smith isn’t setting any lofty goals for his star runner. “I just hope she is competitive with the top athletes,” he said.
Mako is also competitive in the classroom.
“She’s not going to school because she’s a great runner, she’s going to school because she’s a great student,” assistant coach Walt Flynn said.
Syracuse University and the University of Vermont are high on her list that also includes RPI, Tufts, Cornell and the University of Massachusetts, according to Mako.
“I think she’s going to end up going to some really good school and (cross country) will be part of her life, but not necessarily the driving force,” Smith said.
Wherever Mako goes, she hopes to run.
“It’s been such a big part of my life, I can’t imagine not doing it,” she said.