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Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Peabody's Rocha an unassuming star

By Joe Reardon

Catarina Rocha’s philosophy about her craft just may come as somewhat of a shock to the people dialed into the Massachusetts high school running community.

The Peabody senior and defending Div. 1 state cross country champion has never yearned for the limelight that comes with being the best distance runner in the state and arguably one of the top five all-time. When all is said and done and Rocha moves on to college after graduation, she would rather Peabody High's teachers, students and her friends look back and recall her as a well-rounded person who just happened to be a runner.

Running doesn’t define who Rocha is. It’s just a part that makes up the whole person.

“I don’t want people to remember me as just a runner,” Rocha said. “I want to be thought of as someone who did a lot for the school and was a good person. I think I can bring those together and be a good person, overall. Running comes second. Being a good person is first. I just try to be myself.”

Catarina Rocha
Peabody's Catarina Rocha finished seventh at the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships in December. She eyes a return in 2012.
Rocha believes that wholeheartedly, but it doesn’t make her any less tough when the gun goes off. She is still the enormously competitive runner she was her sophomore year when she gave Lincoln-Sudbury’s Andrea Keklak all she could handle in placing second, dogging the Warrior great the entire way in the Div. 1 state title race on the grassy Gardner Golf Course layout.

That superb performance was just an inkling of things to come for the soccer transplant.

And then, last year, running as the overwhelming favorite, Rocha proved that the pressure of being the harrier everyone wanted a piece of didn’t bother her one iota. Racing over the Franklin Park course in perfect conditions, Rocha crushed a strong field and wound up with the fastest time of the day in 18:12. Longmeadow standout Camille Blackman had a great day in finishing second, but was never able to challenge Rocha, crossing the finish line in 18:42.

Not done yet, Rocha capped her season with a seventh place at the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships in December after taking third at the Northeast qualifier.

The chances of a Massachusetts runner bumping Rocha down to the No. 2 position this season is pretty much slim to none. Rocha took a solid month off after winning the 2-mile state title and recording a scalding 10:39 personal best at the Nike Nationals in June. She started back in earnest in August with the team Northeast Conference title first on the list of autumn goals. “I needed it,” she said of her time off in the summer. “I think everyone does.”

What’s more, Rocha looks physically stronger. Courtesy of a summer’s worth of core exercises that included pushups, crunches and sit-ups, Rocha’s shoulders, biceps and legs have a define, sculpted look. That added strength will be especially advantageous in the final half mile when she is driving for the finish line.

“I definitely feel a lot stronger and that can only help,” said Rocha.

The new season does offer challenges for Rocha. Unlike the Franklin Park course, she has limited to no racing experience on the Wrentham Developmental Center and Northfield Mountain courses, sites of the EMass and state championships, respectively.

Rocha, though, is confident the mix of fitness and experience will see her through. “Hopefully the (Northfield Mountain) hill won’t be a big deal,” shrugged Rocha. “We’ve all been training on hills and training well. Things are good. I’m running a little faster and doing a little more mileage but not that much more.”

If for some reason (i.e. sickness, injury) Rocha doesn’t capture a second state title she’ll simply move on. There are too many races to be run, Rocha believes, to dwell on the occasional off day. “If it happens, it happens,” she said of winning at Northfield. “If it doesn’t, you just move on to the next race and try to run well there There’s going to be a lot of competition. There are a lot of great runners out there.

“I take the dual meets one at a time and want to help the team win the NEC [Northeast Conference[. Hopefully, we can qualify for all-states. If I win there, great. If I don’t, I’ll move on to Foot Locker and try to run well there. It’s a big deal [repeating], but if I lose it’s not like anything bad is going to happen.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a dual meet or state meet, it’s all the same. I just go out and try to win. Sophomore year I wasn’t experienced. A little more experience now helps a lot. I’m not fully experienced yet, though. I have to wait until college for that.”