Culture change and hard work has helped St. John’s cross-country team restore elite status

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since St. John’s captured its only Division 1 cross-country championship.

“I look at it as if that was the top of the pyramid, so to speak,” Pioneers coach Mark Murray said. “You need talent. Hard work. You need a little bit of luck. All those things have to come into play. I’m seeing a resurgence in that.”

While Murray doesn’t expect another state title this year, St. John’s, after a few lean years, is back on track to becoming the powerhouse program it’s traditionally been.

“This year has been a turning point in terms of working hard and getting back to where we need to be,” Murray said. “The idea is to get back to where we were. It takes time to build. The last two or three years we’ve been redeveloping the culture and what it takes to win. We’re starting to see results and that bodes well for the future.”

A trip to next month’s All-States in Devens, though, would be a good start back to relevance.

“My hope is that we will qualify as a team, which we haven’t done since 2019,” Murray said. “That’s our goal as a team. My hope is if we don’t qualify as a team, we can qualify some individual runners. However, our goal is to go as a team.”

St. John’s has only been in the ultra competitive Catholic Conference for three years, but clinched a winning season after defeating Catholic Memorial, 25-36, last week for its second straight victory to improve to 3-2.

The Pioneers opened their season with a tough 27-30 loss to BC High before bouncing back to trounce Xaverian, 17-41. St. John’s then fell to perennial power St. John’s Prep (Danvers), 15-50, but regrouped to defeat Malden Catholic, 15-48.

“First time we’ve been over .500,” said Murray, whose team is preparing for the Catholic Conference Championships on Oct. 25th at Franklin Park in Boston. “We’ve never been below .500. We’re in great shape . St. John’s Prep will be tough to beat. They’re very talented, but we’re certainly in the mix. We’ll make things interesting. I hope we can get on the podium.”

“As a team we’ve already achieved one goal and that was a winning record,” senior captain Liam Secrist said.

“Our goal was to do our best each and every meet,” senior captain Dan Rivard said. “I think the strength of our team is the ability to execute the plans our coach gives us.”

After that, it’ll be on to next month’s Division 1A race, which features several of the elite programs in the state.

“That’s where we need to run our best to qualify for the all-state meet,” Murray said. “We’re in with the best. Top flight.”

“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” senior Lucas Carvalho said. “It’s hard to prepare for, but for the team, I want to help them qualify for All-States.

Murray said what he admires about this year’s squad is that they’re very team-oriented, which hadn’t necessarily been the case in recent seasons.

“They’re focused on the big picture,” Murray said. “That means getting ready for postseason meets. They’ve worked hard over the summer. The seniors are great leaders. The younger fellows tend to follow their lead, which is great .”

“We have a lot of good guys on the team,” Carvalho said. “These guys, they all love to run. It’s their passion. Everyone comes to practice happy to do it. You have to really love the sport to stay in it .”

Secrist said coming off the pandemic the team culture was down, but isn’t anymore.

“I feel like the culture and team spirit is on the up-rise, which I feel was lacking in past years,” Secrist said. “I feel like the team dynamic is coming back.”

St. John’s is led by junior Tommy Robinsonwho has been the Pioneers’ No. 1 runner since he was a freshman.

“He’s incredibly consistent,” Murray said. “He’s a front-runner who has high expectations of competing at the top level.”

Right behind Robinson is Carvalho, a newcomer who decided to forgo soccer this season. Carvalho ran a personal-best 17.26.2, which he ran earlier this month at the MSTCA Bay State Invitational.

Rivard is No. 3, while Secrist is usually in the top seven.

Secrist, who runs the two mile in outdoor track and takes the winter off, has been battling Sever’s Disease, which occurs when the tendon that attaches to the back of the heel (the achilles tendon) pulls on the growth plate (the apophysis) of the bone of the heel (the calcaneus). During a growth spurt, the bones, muscles, and tendons grow at different rates. The muscles and tendons can become tight pulling on the growth plate in the heel.

“My growth plates are inflamed in both my heels,” Secrist said. “Hopefully, this year I can get ahead of that and make up for lost ground. I think I’m done growing. Hopefully, it’s not going to affect me anymore .”

Secrist’s older brother Jeffrey was a member of the 2017 state title team, but had Achilles Tendinitis.

“He’s been a parallel for me,” said Secrist, whose PR is 17:56. “He stuck with it.”

Senior Andres Infante is the Pioneers No. 4 runner while classmate Austin Tenczar and junior Severin Smith have been routinely cracking the top five.

Murray is excited about freshmen Arnav Chatterjeewho won the jayvee race of the MSTCA Bay State Invitational despite going off course, and Jacob Flynn.

Murray is assisted by first-year coach Paul Oparowski and Luke Wajrowski.

Oparowski, who is a former Division 3 All American, competed against Murray when he was attending Bates College and Murray at Holy Cross. Oparowski is also a two-time US Olympic Trial Marathon qualifier.

The St. John’s cross country team held a fundraiser at Saturday’s 13th Annual Abby’s House Hybrid 5K Run/Walk in West Boylston.

Contact Steve Farley at

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Jorge Oliveira

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