NXN: Hamilton-Wenham running inspired

The Hamilton-Wenham MA girls celebrate their NXN Northeast regional win last Saturday. John Nepolitan/ESPNHS

Before the celebration had died down at Wappinger Falls, N.Y., Steve Sawyer was dialing the police department back home in Northeastern Massachusetts.

Sawyer is the long-time coach at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School, which won the NXN Northeast Region meet on Saturday.

“All I do is call the police station and they say ‘What can we do?’” Sawyer explains. “I taught mathematics in town for years and years and most of those guys know me.”

Sawyer was calling in a favor. When the charter bus ferrying the team back home approached Hamilton and Wenham – there was a surprise waiting: Two police cars and three fire engines lined up to escort the bus and lead a parade through both towns.

“It caught (the girls) completely by surprise,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer has been the track coach at the high school since 1969 and the cross country coach since 1979. On Thursday he’ll fly to Oregon with his team for the meet experience of a lifetime.

“I’ve never been (to Oregon) but I can find it on a map,” Sawyer said.

Making it to NXN is a high point for the program and a feel-good moment for the Hamilton-Wenham community. And it is also testimony to the way H-W bounced back from a crushing loss.

In the summer of 2008, a Dartmouth-bound Hamilton-Wenham grad named Gabe Pacione was killed in an auto accident. The loss hit the towns hard. Pacione was not only well-loved, he was one of the two best runners Sawyer ever coached.

Three years later, Pacione’s memory continues to inspire a drive for excellence in the cross country program. Gabe’s younger sister, Claire, is a junior on the team that will race in the national championship on Saturday at Portland Meadows.

“They are definitely living with it,” Sawyer said. “(Gabe’s) legacy is with us and it’s something that will never be repeated. A lot of the kids base their training and attitude on it. He’s an inspiration to all of our kids. They all know about Gabe.”

A day-after-Thanksgiving race, Gabe’s Run, draws runners from all over New England to Hamilton-Wenham’s home course at Patton Park for a 5K. The money raised by the event funds two college scholarships.

Pacione’s untimely death still resonates and serves as a call to make the most out of every day.

“I think it created another focus for us,” Sawyer said. “Gabe was all about running and relationships. He took care of kids, he related to kids.”

Hamilton-Wenham, aka Hamilton XC Club, won’t forget him when they take the starting line.

A year after placing ninth in their first NXN Northeast regional appearance at Bowdoin Park, the H-W girls "attacked with confidence," Sawyer said. The team's top finisher placed 27th but all five scorers arrived within 32 seconds to win the regional championship -- and earn a phone call to the police department.