Grace Connolly Is At The Top Of Her Game, In Two Different States

Grace Connolly capped off her cross-country season last fall in style by finishing ninth overall at the Foot Locker Nationals. That was only the beginning of a stellar sophomore year for the gifted runner, who earned All-American status again for the mile during the indoor campaign.

Then, on October 7, Grace Connolly placed fourth overall in the Race of Champions at the Great American XC Classic, where she ran a fast early season time of 17:47 for the 5K course. A week later, she continued to prove her training was right on target by finishing among the top 10 in the Eastern States race at the Manhattan Invitational. 

Now here's the crazy part: those are two different Grace Connollys. 

They are two elite high school athletes who live less than an hour away from each other and just happen to be the best in their respective states.

There's Grace Connolly, a junior at Natick High in Massachusetts, and senior Grace Connolly of La Salle Academy in neighboring Rhode Island.

Coincidental? Absolutely.

Confusing? No doubt.

"A few times people have contacted me saying good job for a race that I didn't run, which she must have run," said La Salle's Connolly. "A few times relatives or coaches have confused us."

Surprisingly, despite their close similarities in talent, the two Connollys have never faced each other in head-to-head competition. It almost happened at the New England indoor track and field championships in 2016, where both were entered in the 3,000m run.

It was the first and only time when the two had the chance to meet. 

"We were in two different heats," said Natick's Connolly. "She was in the unseeded heat and I was in the seeded. When they started calling the names for the heats, I figured it out very briefly at the beginning. We just looked at each other and smiled."

"I did know of her previously," admitted La Salle's Connolly. "I think my dad or my coach pointed it out. But that (meet) was the only time we met."

Due to the fact that Massachusetts does not compete in the New England Championships during the XC season and both have raced in separate national-level meets the last few years -- Natick's Connolly at Foot Locker and La Salle's Connolly at Nike -- the two athletes have never answered the gun together in cross country. 

But there is a chance that could happen this fall.

Right now, the younger Connolly has indicated that she will return to the Foot Locker Northeast Regionals with hopes of making a second-straight trip to the nationals in San Diego. The elder Connolly has competed at the Nike Northeast Regionals the last three years, where twice she and her teammates earned a trip to Portland, Oregon, for the national meet.

It's up in the air now whether La Salle will head back to Bowdoin Park in New York for the Nike Northeast Regionals. If Foot Locker is on the docket, we could finally see the matchup between the two Graces.

Judging by how the two have been running this year, it would certainly be a matchup worth watching.

Grace Connolly of La Salle heads to the finish line of the Great American X-C Classic.

Rams' Connolly heating up after injury derailed outdoor season last year

After solid cross country and indoor seasons last year, La Salle's Connolly suffered a stress fracture that cut short her outdoor season. But the injury is now behind her and she has shown this season that she not only is one of the leading contenders for a state title but has potential to extend her season even further with some postseason success at the New England Championships -- and beyond.

"I think the injury really healed well," she said. "I was really smart during the summer...I owe a lot to good training and mentally I have come a long way."

The Rams' Connolly kicked off the fall on September 2 by winning her race at the Injury Fund Carnival in East Greenwich (RI), where she clocked the fastest time of the day with her 18:25 effort. 

She further solidified her status as a top-class talent with her performance at Great American. Besides breaking 18 minutes, she said of her primary goal in that race, "I knew the first mile would be fast and not to freak out."

With the first third of the course downhill, Connolly ripped through the opening mile at sub 5:20. She managed to "not freak out," and went on to dip more than 12 seconds under her intended goal of a sub 18.

"It was just really amazing," she said. "[Breaking 18 minutes] was my biggest goal going into the race. Breaking 18 has been a goal for me since my sophomore year."

Prior to her stress fracture, the Rams' Connolly, a three-time first-team all state selection, had what she considered a breakthrough indoor season that was sparked by her victory in the 3000m at the Yale Track Classic, when she ran a personal best of 10:01.32.

"I went into it with zero expectations then ran a national-level time," she said." I knew then that I should be up there with the top girls."

Natick's Connolly silently making noise

The younger Connolly has been somewhat silent this season, at least to the rest of the state. She'll be competing this Saturday at the Bob McIntyre Twilight Invitational, her first major meet of the season.

In that race, she'll be tested by good friend Bridget Mitchell of Milton (MA), who last weekend finished second in the championship race of the Brown Northeast Invitational.

"I talked to her (on Saturday)," Connolly said. "I am so excited. I have never raced there before. I heard it's a fast course. I am really excited to see what I can do there."

Despite her absence in the bigger meets this fall, the Natick standout has been demonstrating some early-season strength during the league season. She ran 18 minutes flat in her league opener at the beginning of September. Two weeks ago in a meet with Wellesley at Elm Bank, she won with a PB of 17:27 for the 5K course. It was a race she captured by nearly a minute.

"I was extremely happy with that," she said. "I was really hoping to break 18 minutes."

Connolly certainly has potential to make things happen this fall, especially considering last year's success that included her performance at Foot Locker, where she ran 17:50.9 to secure her top-10 placement. As a sophomore in 2016-17, she was also undefeated against her state competition in Massachusetts, winning four individual state titles -- across cross country, indoor, and outdoor track -- and was sixth in the mile at the New Balance Nationals Indoor Championships in March when she clocked an all-time best of 4:52.38. 

State Meets (and Beyond)

Following the same successful plan she did last year, where she hung low for the first half of the cross-country season, Natick's Connolly will begin to start rounding into peak mental and physical shape with the divisional and state meets on the horizon.

She's aiming to make it a two-peat in the Division 1 race at the All State Finals on November 18, where she'll face some stiff competition such as as Mitchell, Amherst-Pelham's Sophia Jacobs Townsley, Milton's Elise O'Leary, and Newton South's Caroline Barry.

For La Salle's Connolly, the competition appears fierce for the November 5 state meet. Connolly would seem to be the No. 1 contender based on what she's done of far this season.

But you can't count out her senior teammate Emily Kane, Portsmouth's Nikki Merrill, Westerly's Randi Burr, and two-time defending champion Ellie Lawler of South Kingstown to also be battling up front.

"I know we will all be bunched together. It could be that way the whole race," the Ram senior said. "It's really good I have Emily to train with, really good we can work together. I am really excited. I am really hoping I can pull off the individual victory."

And what would happen if the two Grace Connollys meet at the end of the cross-country season?

"I feel if somehow she did Foot Locker, it would be fun," said the Natick standout. "It would be pretty cool."

"I think she is a really good runner and really talented. If we happen to race against each other that would be cool," added the Rams' Connolly. "She is really fast. I hope if we race each other it would be a good battle."

Based on how the two have run so far this season, the odds are favorable that would be the result.

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