SMITHFIELD – Entering his team’s Northern Division meet on Monday at Burrillville Middle School, Smithfield High head boys’ cross country coach Joe Bennett needed three victories to reach 300 in his marvelous career with the Sentinels.
And his runners did not disappoint their veteran leader, as they blanked Burrillville, North Providence, and Central Falls in the afternoon’s opening race by 15-50 scores to raise their record to 6-0.
As the girls’ race finished and saw Smithfield also take home three wins, the runners gathered around Bennett for their post-run talk. Bennett had no idea that he had hit 300 wins, but assistant coach Jeff Kurbec had been planning on it for the past two days.
And as Bennett was talking and catching up with people, the Smithfield boys and Kurbec retrieved huge balloons in the shape of a ‘3’, a ‘0’, and a ‘0’ to spell out 300 and gave him a pleasant surprise.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” Bennett said, and while he was excited, he also said it made him feel old. He started coaching this team back in 1981, right after recovering from breaking his neck. Coaching the kids gave him an outlet, and he said it has helped his mental and overall health.
“Coaching this sport and the caliber of kids – the nicest kids – I look forward to every season,” Bennett said. “Every team has put their own mark on things, and I’ve enjoyed them all. We haven’t had a losing season since 1983, and we’ve made the states in all but one year that I’ve coached. It’s been a fun run. I’ve enjoyed it.”
His record now stands at 300-77-1.
In Monday’s 3.1-mile race, the Sentinels grabbed the top seven spots. Sophomore Jason Padula was the first to cross the finish line at 16:26.2, and junior Elijah Saddlemire placed second at 16:39.1.
As for the third- and fourth-place finishers, Bennett said he’s trying to get them to cut down on the time gap. Senior Dante DiGregorio was third at 17:06.4, and his classmate, Unwana Okokon, was next at 17:17.9. Rounding out the top seven were Aiden Powers (17:20.6), Camden Maione (17:50.1), and Tyler Rose (17:57.2).
Right now, junior Reilly Bennett is sidelined, but the veteran head coach said he likes what he’s seen from some of his freshmen.
“Marcus Miller had a very good race today, along with Mike Goodson,” Bennett said. “Behind them was Olek Bogusz. We ran well.”
The girls’ team, which is now headed by LeeAnn Brown, held off Burrillville, 25-31, and easily topped North Providence, 16-47, and Central Falls, 15-50, to also raise their record to 6-0. The Sentinels swept the second through fifth places behind sophomore Caroline Bosco (22:25.1, junior Lillie McCormick (22:32.2), sophomore Julia Cavanagh (22:40.7), and freshman Maritza Howard (22:51.7).
Both boys’ and girls’ teams will face off against also-undefeated Cumberland and Mount Saint Charles next Monday at 4 p.m. at Deerfield Park and Bennett said that meet will decide the division, but right now, he is enjoying the spotlight.
“It’s been a long ride and one that I’ve enjoyed,” he said, adding that he hopes to reach 400 wins. “I love the kids on the team. I like to see when they’ve run a good race and how excited they get. It keeps me coming back. They’ve been a big help to me in times of my life where things aren’t going well for me. I want to be there for them and teach them life lessons. I pride myself on that.”
He praised Kurbec, who he has coached with for a while. Kurbec said he thinks he started with Bennett on Bennett’s 100th win. He also highlighted former Smithfield girls’ cross country head coach and current track coach John Marchand, who attended the meet, as well as Brown. Bennett, who is also the school’s head basketball coach, also mentioned his assistant coach, Mike Tartaglia, his best friend, who he leans on.
“It’s great to be coaching with my friends,” he said.