Sam Nishi, Times Argus Cross Country Runner of the Year

James Biggam, Staff Writer for Times Argus

(From Times Argus, November 21, 2014)

Having a big bullseye on his back doesn’t faze Sam Nishi one bit.

He simply laces up his shoes, smiles and says, “Catch me if you can.”

The 2014 Times Argus Runner of the Year broke the tape and shattered school records in one fell swoop this fall, leading Harwood to its third straight title. His 5-kilometer time of 15 minutes, 50.48 seconds during a meet in Maine was the fastest in Highlanders history, eclipsing Eric Morse’s 33-year-old mark by three seconds.

But Nishi’s confidence was never confused for arrogance, even as he breezed to back-to-back individual state championships. This year he was pivotal in mentoring an inexperienced team, giving Harwood enough depth to steal the D-II title with a one-point victory over U-32. The three-peat was somewhat of a surprise to 37-year veteran coach John Kerrigan, who had his work cut out for him this fall.

“I lost 27 seniors from last year’s team – 14 boys and 13 girls – and I thought it would be a rebuilding year,” Kerrigan admitted. “We had a lot of freshmen and sophomores, but we reloaded. For some of those kids, it might have taken them a year or two more to develop. But because Sam was their captain and their role model, they wanted to do well because they felt like they were part of a great thing.”

According to Kerrigan, Nishi’s devotion to training the right way has been unrivaled at Harwood. As a freshman Nishi placed 20th at states in 18:49.9 before finishing third as a sophomore in 17:42. Last year he took home the D-II state championship in 16:34.8 and then finished 19th at New Englands (15:54.9).

“One thing Sam does is he brings everyone else to a higher level by his work ethic,” Kerrigan said. “You want to do right for the guy because he’s such a nice kid and he’s willing to work hard. I want to be on my ‘A’ game when I’m working with Sam.”

Like most elite runners, Nishi doesn’t always train as fast as he races. The three-sport standout approaches each season with meticulous attention to detail, making sure he isn’t peaking too early or blowing up late. That commitment to his training plan helped Nishi accomplish the improbable by surpassing Morse (Class of 1983) and Bruce Hyde (Class of 2001) as the school’s all-time fastest runner.

“Sam wasn’t as naturally as gifted as those guys, but he worked just has hard and he trained smarter,” Kerrigan said. “What he does for training is he picks and chooses good workouts. With Bruce and Eric, and particularly with Eric, we’d go out and run 8 or 10 miles every day. For Sam, 8 or 10 miles is an easy day. His hard days are interval workouts. And I’ve found that the more that you run at race pace, the faster you’re going to be. You can’t run at race pace for 120 miles a week. For Sam, a lot of intervals and a lot of uphill intervals have been helpful.”

The Highlanders lost five of their top six runners from last year’s powerhouse team, which nearly beat D-I champ South Burlington early in the season. Entering this year’s Essex Invitational, which is divided into two divisions, the Rebels coach suggested that Harwood should run in the D-I race.

“I said, ‘No, no – we’ll run Division II. That’s where we belong,’” Kerrigan recalls. “But because of lightning, they put both divisions together and they got their wish. Sam ran with both South Burlington kids (James Gregoire and Brandon Moran), and he just dropped them after 2 miles. And that was an indication of how the season was going to go.”

Nishi’s winning time of 16:18.6 at Essex was 33 seconds faster than the runner-up. A week later he found himself in the lead pack again mid-race, but this time his intuition kicked in and he eased up to a fourth-place result in 18:17.

“When he’s not feeling right, he backs off,” Kerrigan said. “Sometimes he went into races and he was feeling really, really crappy and was almost not going to run. In the Burlington race, the lead pack started to break up and he said he probably could have pushed it and possibly won the race. But he said it would have taken a lot out of him and he’d pay the price for days. So he knows when to back off.”

A week later Nishi confirmed a speedy recovery at the U-32 Invitational, edging North Country’s Sam Brunette at the line to win in 16:52.64. After placing second at the Manchester Invitational in 16:29.60, Nishi made the fourth trip of his varsity career to the Maine Festival of Champions. He knew the course at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast was the fastest he’d run all season, and by the 1-mile mark he’d reached the lead pack. With a half-mile remaining he surged in front, opened a small gap and hung on for a three-second victory in a field of 870 racers.

“His greatest accomplishment was winning the Maine Meet of Champions,” Kerrigan said. “That was pure satisfaction. You should have seen the grin on his face. He was really ecstatic.”

Nishi faced a much different beast the following week, churning up “Kerrigan’s Killer” at the Harwood Invitational and posting a 41-second margin of victory in 16:51.24. The Highlanders opted for a less hilly course when they hosted the NVAC Mountain Division Championships, but heavy rainfall resulted in some perilous points.

“Right around three-quarters of a mile, I slipped coming around the corner at the bottom of a hill and I almost went down,” Nishi said. “But I caught back up to the guys, and the same thing happened at about 2.5 miles. I fell, but I got up pretty quick and was able to stay with them.”

Nishi ran most of the race with Brunette and Montpelier’s Matt Hynes, overcoming a pair of falls to edge Brunette in a finish-line sprint. His time of 16:55.45 was solid for the sloppy conditions, but Harwood suffered a close loss to Montpelier in the team competition and it was clear that states would be a battle.

Following a crash-and-burn start by a southern Vermont runner, Nishi calmly sped to the front and was quickly out of any competitor’s eyeshot at states. His winning time of 16:58.3 was 24 seconds faster than the runner-up and the best of all divisions, but less clear was the team outcome after a mad sequence of mid-pack scrambling.

When the final numbers were tallied, every split-second truly counted as Harwood edged U-32 by one point and beat Montpelier by 11. The moment of realization easily trumped Nishi’s personal victory, proving that he’d laid the foundation for “Kerrigan’s Army” and its running dynasty.

“He’s one of the most humble people I know,” Kerrigan said. “He’s a great student and a great athlete, and he never blows his own horn. He talks about other people’s accomplishments before himself. His mom said he’s got posters in his bedroom about being modest and not being flamboyant. And he even keeps me in line sometimes. He’s a very mature character. He leads with a quiet reverence.”

Nishi’s time of 16:10 was good enough for 11th place at New Englands, marking the second straight year that he was the only Vermonter to crack the top 25.

Despite the void he’ll leave next fall, the school’s cross country participation was up 50 percent this season and Kerrigan has no worries about the present state of the program. With guys like Nishi setting the bar, it’s hard not to buy into Harwood’s running culture.

“Sam has had the support of the community, and when you look at Eric and Bruce, in some ways Sam stood on the shoulders of giants,” Kerrigan said. “Those guys paved the way for him. Those guys had people take notice of Harwood cross country, and now Sam has put Harwood on the map. At New Englands there were teams from Southern Maine and New Hampshire and Rhode Island screaming, ‘There goes Nishi. Go get Nishi.’ It was really cool to hear. He’s being used as the measuring stick for really good runners.”