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Two of Nation’s HS Best Hail From its Smallest State

RI’s Principe & Lawler Ready for the ‰’Big Show’

Two of the
Nation’s Best Hail From its Smallest State
2015 FootLocker Cross Country Finals

 

by Stephen Mazzone

 

When it comes to running and cross country, David “DJ”
Principe and Ellie Lawler share some similarities.

For starters, the gifted harriers are the defending Rhode
Island state champions and All Americans. The two are also noted for their
gutsy, front-running style; taking the pace out hard and challenging their
rivals in a battle of mental and physical strength.

Principe, the La Salle Academy senior, and Lawler, a junior
from South Kingstown, have one other trait that makes them alike once the
running shoes have been firmly placed on their feet. 

The successes that they have both encountered throughout
their young careers have changed their original perspective on where they
should go from here; what they should do once their diplomas are in hand.

After turning some heads as a youth and making quite a bit
of noise at the junior level, Principe already had his career mapped out before
he entered La Salle. A bright student with a near-perfect 99.8 weighted
average, his initial goal was to use his running as a way to get into a good
college or universit
 

That all changed for the better this past year; his mindset
was altered during a brief two-week span from mid-June until the end of the
month. It was a special time where Principe earned his first national title
and, shortly after, had an eye-opening experience as part of a select group of
the nation’s best at the Nike Elite Camp in Oregon, a well-timed five-day
running camp that coincided with the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials

What’s changed since then for Principe? Whereas before,
academics was his top priority for his post-high school future, now it’s more
evenly-matched with his running. He’s eyeing a strong Division I program that
he feels can be competitive at the championship level, one that can set him up
for bigger and better things once he graduates.

“The plan was always about going to a top college and the
whole process of using running to get into the best academic place as possible and
move on and get a good job,” he said. “Now everything is progressing and
running is a focus. After going to the Elite Camp and being around that
professional atmosphere, I kind of want to put myself into a situation where I
can basically have the opportunity to do the best I can academically and athletically.”

Lawler, who broke through as a top R.I. talent as a
ninth-grader, finishing fifth at the State Meet, has never been a full-time runner
like most of her rivals. A swimmer since she was young, Lawler has split her
time between her two passions, competing for the school’s swim team during the
winter months and also year round on her club squad.
(Taking
full advantage of her long strides, South Kingstown’s Eleanor Lawler concluded
her sophomore season by placing 14th at Foot Locker.
Photo by Victah Sailer/PhotoRun

But after a junior year that saw her win her first state X-C
title and then place 14th at the Foot Locker Nationals, Lawler has decided to
forego the pool and compete for the Rebels indoor track & field team to
maintain her sharpness. With still a year left until she makes that next step,
Lawler feels she needs to concentrate more on a sport that will get her into a
good Div. I program.

“I have been swimming my whole life,” she said. “But I have
developed into a better runner than swimmer, and I also enjoy it more.

With their future plans in place, Principe and Lawler will
be tending to business this fall versus some familiar rivals in their home
state and against the best of the best on the regional and national stage.

The Rams’ Principe is the overwhelming favorite to win his
third consecutive individual crown at the State Meet on Nov. 6 and is also the
defending New England champion.

He has a competitive field to contend with in the Ocean
State, individuals such as sophomore phenom Sam Toolin of North Kingstown, one
of the nation’s top freshmen in 2015-16. But Principe may have solidified his
top position with his performances in June when he captured the 5,000-meter run
at the New Balance Nationals Outdoor Championships (June 17-19) and then
clocked an all-time best of 4:07.66 for the mile during an exhibition high
school race at the Olympic Trials, part of the Nike Elite Camp.

“That was really special to me,” he said, referring to his
win at the Nationals, where he broke his own state record with a time of
14:37.09. “I just wanted to put it out there and be the best. I was pretty
determined to take it from the gun and control the whole thing.”

 

After the first month of the cross-country season, Principe
has proved he hasn’t missed a beat and should be looked at as a legitimate
contender for a national title. On Sept. 3, at the annual Injury Fund Carnival
in R.I., the La Salle standout flirted with a sub 15-minute clocking before
crossing the line in 15:00.35. Principe opened more eyes in New York three
weeks later when he defended his title on Sept. 24 at the Bowdoin X-C Classic,
site of the Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) Regional Championships.

 

On a very-demanding five-kilometer layout, he broke the
course record by more than three seconds with an impressive time of 15:23.30.
He followed that with a superlative runner-up finish at Great American X-C
Festival in North Carolina on Oct. 1 where he was timed in an all-time best of
14:32.4, just two tenths of a second behind winner Brody Hasty of Brentwood
(TN).

 

Always putting his team first, Principe is confident he will
be competing at NXN in Portland, Ore., this season. Last year, he was third at
the regional meet and placed 17th at the nationals after leading in the early
stages.

“I still think I am pretty set on Nike,” he said. “I’m not
really sure what kind of spot our team is in, but we want to give it a try.”

If he earns another trip out west, something that seems all
but assured, Principe promised he won’t hold back

“I am certainly going to put myself in a position where I
want to be in that final group; put myself in position to be able to compete
that last mile,” he said. “I am really happy with how my training is going. I
definitely think I can put myself in a solid position at Nike.”

As to where Principe will be next fall, he has four colleges
on his list: Michigan, Stanford, Princeton and Georgetown. If he decides on
Georgetown, he’ll join former teammates Jack Salisbury and Matt Bouthillette,
who both enjoyed stellar high school careers. He’s certainly not ruling out
rejoining Salisbury and Bouthillette in Washington, D.C

“Besides the fact that they are two of my best friends out
there, they’re also two guys that are unbelievable strong team members,” he
said. “I still talk to them every day. We’ll see. I’ll try and figure it out,
where is the best place to go. If it’s there, great. If not, they will support
me wherever I go.”

While Lawler hasn’t had as many opportunities to compete
beyond the borders as Principe, she has certainly demonstrated she can hold her
own when the talent is at its fiercest. Last year, she finished second to
multiple All American and Connecticut native Hannah DeBalsi of Staples (CT) at
the New England Championship. She followed that effort by taking eighth at the
Foot Locker Northeast Regionals, earning a trip to San Diego for the national
meet where she achieved her All-American status.

“I remember the week before the regionals I had done some
tough training. It kind of showed at the regionals,” she said. “At the
nationals, I made sure I was well-rested.”

The tall, slender Lawler has a runner’s physique and lengthy
stride. Her race strategy is often to make sure she’s right in the thick of
things from the get-go. It’s a front-running style that has often equated to a
positive outcome at the finish. Last fall, she won her class and state
championships with that same approach, twice defeating a formidable foe in La
Salle graduate and current Harvard freshman Eliza Rego, a multiple all-state
distance ace.

“I usually go out with the first group,” said Lawler. “I
always like to go out hard and dictate the pace rather than hang onto another
person.”

Lawler makes it a practice to never set a time goal, but she
is hoping to break the brilliant course record of 17:29.28 that she set at last
year’s State Meet, held on Ponaganset’s covered-bridge trail.

“Definitely, especially with the training I have been
doing,” she said. “Hopefully I can bring that time down.”

Like Principe, Lawler is off to a strong start this fall.
She dominated in her race at the Injury Fund with a methodical 18:33.74
clocking. She also captured the Small School race at the Manchester
Invitational in New Hampshire on Sept. 24 where she was timed in 18:45.0.

“We have been getting in some tough training and getting the
mileage up right now,” she said. “Basically, my races have been like hard
training runs. I treat them as a race, but the times aren’t comparable to what
I can do.

Lawler’s toughest rivals in-state will be Westerly’s Randi
Burr, a junior and two-time all-stater that has improved tremendously since her
frosh campaign. Other strong contenders like La Salle’s Grace Connolly and
Portsmouth’s Elizabeth Sullivan could push Lawler to the limit.

With the graduation of DeBalsi, it would appear that Lawler
will be the runner to beat at the New England Championship, a meet that will be
held at Ponaganset this year. But that meet, or any other postseason
competitions, are not what’s on her mind as of now.

“I try to put those races in the back of my mind,” she said.
“For me, I have always been that way. I just want to run my best and do
whatever I can do to set my team up to win a state championship. Hopefully it
all collides together on that day.”

 

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