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St. John's cross country team hoping to play the role of spoiler

Shrewsbury – The St. John's High School cross country team may not be the powerhouse it was back in 2005- 2006, when it captured backto back Central Mass. Division 1 championships, but underestimating the Pioneers chances in this year's district meet would be a mistake.

The harriers from Nashoba Regional are the defending champions of the race, this year's version of which will be held Saturday Nov. 8 at Gardner Municipal Golf Course.

"It's going to take one heck of a run by us to knock off Nashoba," St. John's coach Raul Laborde said, "but I wouldn't count us out. This group of seniors was once considered the best freshman class of runners ever, and while they've been a part of teams that have won districts and finished second in the state (in 2006), they're hungry to win something on their own."

Laborde's Pioneers are led by senior twin brothers Cam and Chris Tieuli, classmate Kevin Turner, junior Ben Perron and sophomore Dan Zawalich.

The highlight of the St. John's season – so far – was the team's second-place finish in the championship race of the Ocean State Invitational, held Sept. 27 at Goddard Park in Warwick, R.I.

"Individually the guys ran a tremendous race and finished very well," Laborde said.

Perron led the way, finishing 18th, while Cam Tieuli led a troika of Pioneers across the line two runners later. Zawalich finished 21st and Turner 22nd. Chris Tieuli rounded out the Pioneers' top five in the race with a 70th-place finish.

Newton South High School, the No. 1-ranked team in Massachusetts all season, edged the Pioneers in the team competition, but St. John's finished ahead of perennial Massachusetts powerhouse St. John's Prep, which was fourth, one spot behind Rhode Island's top team, La Salle Academy of Providence, which finished third.

Earlier this month St. John's competed for the first time ever in the Manhattan Invitational in New York City, again running in the championship meet, but it didn't go as well as the championship race of the Ocean State Invitational.

"It was a great experience to run in such a prestigious race, but it was a rude kick in the face," Laborde said. "We were up against five of the top 25 teams in the country and sev- eral regionally ranked teams. In addition it was a short, for us, race – 2.5 miles, and the course went from 150 yards wide at the beginning to about 10 yards wide 600 meters in and we just got swamped."

St. John's finished the dual meet portion of its season 6-1, losing only to cross-town rival Shrewsbury High.

All things being equal, the Tieulis, Turner, Perron and Zawalich would be the Pioneers' top five runners all season, but all things haven't been equal.

Zawalich suff ered an arch injury in the Ocean State Invitational race and hasn't run in a meet since, although Laborde said he expects him back – and back at full strength – for the Central Mass. championship race.

Laborde said the rest of the top five have been slowed at various points of the season by minor injuries.

"We don't really have a clearcut No. 1 runner like we have in years past," the coach said. "Perron has been the top runner at times this season, but so have Turner and Cam Tieuli, and Zawalich could be that guy if he had been healthy all season long."

Running in the sixth spot on the team this has been junior Peter Zona, while seniors Travis McKenzie and Zach Bemis have battled for the No. 7 spot all year.

"Peter has made nice improvement this year," Laborde said. "He has lowered his personal best by 50 seconds and is really maturing physically as a runner. Chris Tieuli has gotten better as the season has gone along and he is really running right now as well as he has all season."

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