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MKA's school record-setting 1,600-meter standout Billy Massey (center), who finished third in the recent NJSIAA Meet of Champions, gets together with the Cougars' athletic director Todd Smith (left) and head track coach Alden Basmajian. Massey is one of three college-bound senior MKA tracksters who combined with coach 'B' to help keep the Cougars together while persevering beyond the sudden and tragic passing of their beloved coach Tom Fleming back on April 19 with more than half a season to go. (Sideline Chatter photos)

College-bound seniors, from left, Davis Cook and Caylie Privitere (Franklin & Marshall) along with Billy Massey (Amherst) were leaders on and off track.

College-Bound Trio & Coach ‘B’
Helped Get MKA Past Tragedy

By Steve Tober

MONTCLAIR- In what has been a spring track season filled with all the emotions that any teenage athlete could probably ever figure to experience, the Montclair Kimberley Academy Cougars have persevered as a cohesive group for themselves and for their coaches past and present.

The MKA students and the entire school community went through the pain and shock of the sudden passing of beloved 17-year track coach Tom Fleming on April 19, and the realization that – yes – sports and life must both go on.

For the track team it meant that while they will never forget their beloved late coach and teacher they were determined to continue to train and compete at a high level in his absence and continue to strive for personal bests behind the tutelage of the new head man who had stepped in to lead the way.

The results have been exemplary with several Cougars shining in the Essex County and Non-Public B state meets and a handful moving on to the June 10th season-ending NJSIAA Meet of Champions at Northern Burlington High School where all-time great MKA distance runner Billy Massey set a new school record in the 1,600-meter run with his third place 4:12.50.

The Amherst-Collee-bound Massey along with fellow seniors Davis Cook and Caylie Privitere (both headed to Franklin & Marshall) helped keep the team focused on the present and future, while appreciating just how close all in ‘Cougarville’ have become while dealing with a huge loss, but yet determined to carry on in coach Fleming’s rich and ever-lasting spirit and example.

“Despite the tragic situation we all went through, something any team would have difficulties dealing with at first, we remained very together, continued to train like Tom would have wanted us to, and the season has been very life-affirming in the process of it all,” said the reflective Privitere, a dedicated 4-year member of the small but talented MKA girls track squad. “It’s also a tribute to coach ‘B’ (Alden Basmajian) and the incredible job that he did while stepping in for his good friend and fellow coach and continuing to lead us in a way Tom would have been very proud of.”

Cook, who has continued to improve as he now seems primed to take the next step up at F&M this fall, also appreciates what all the Cougars have gone through yet have become stronger in the process.

“ I think what I'll remember most from this season was the overwhelming support we received from our community at MKA which really allowed us to take our loss in stride and continue to improve throughout the season as a team,” said the future ‘Diplomat’ distance runner.

Massey has had the most high-profile success of all the Cougars as in addition to his impressive third in a very formidable field in last weekend’s Meet of Champions also won both the 1,600 and 3,200 in the Non-Public B championships on June 2-3 at Northern Burlington during a meet where both Cook (member of MKA’s fourth-place 4x800 relay unit and sixth in the 800-meter run) and Privitere (14 th in the 3,200) ran strong.

“These three seniors have had a great high school career and have closed out their senior seasons in the best manner possible,” said Basmajian. “Caylie led her 4x800 team to a near-record breaking attempt during the relay race at our Group meet. Although she isn’t an 800m runner, she recorded the best split and displayed a tenacity for her teammates to emulate as they fought for every tenth of a second.

“Davis has had a steady build throughout the season and is knocking on the door of a sub-2min 800. It is great to see him continue his drive and determination to the collegiate level. He has developed through the years from a quiet member of the cross country and track teams to a leader by example, coming to practice each day and getting the most out of his legs.

“Billy Massey is beginning to realize his full potential. With this in mind, continuing his running career at Amherst is just the next step in his storied development. It is incredibly satisfying and I’m extremely proud of each of them, their advancement, and their commitment to this sport.

“Billy went into MOC with fine form. He ran 4:17 in the 1,600 (in Non-Public B) for a second time, and without much of a push, and came out in the 3200 and managed the race and his effort.”

Among the other standouts for MKA in the Non-Public B championships in which the Cougar boys finished third overall (47 points) behind Mater Dei (85.2) and Holy Spirit (53) were junior Nick Wilson (first in the 800-meter run in 1:57.74 and second in the 1,600 (4:25.63.8) right behind Massey) and sophomore Anna Schaller for the Cougar girls (third in the 3,200 in 11:49.66.6.

“Nick Wilson had a career day in the Non-Public B meet,” said Basmajian. “This was one of those meets that people dream about and Nick was able to live it. This season, he set out with several goals, two of which were to break 4:30 (1600m) and 2:00 (800). In one meet, he knocked 5 seconds off his mile time and more than 3 seconds from his 800 time. He fought through the finish line in both races but the 800m has to go down as one of my favorite races in my 8 year tenure at MKA. Nick executed our plan perfectly but still found himself in 8th place with 300m to go. Coming around the final turn, Nick was in 5th and then just found another gear. He didn’t lead the race until the very last lean across the line and the smile on his face said it all. I’m so proud of his resilience and desire to push his limits and he earned the ultimate rewards and satisfaction. The team is in great hands next year under his example of commitment and will power. 

“Anna Schaller is an up and coming member of the team and the county. She is taking charge of races and her own performances rather than leaving it to others. Anna knows how to lift her teammates and always finds another gear during race day. This is the un-coachable part of an athlete. It’s that ability and desire to know that you can push more, delve deeper, and go faster. Anna had a tight race on her hands at the end of the 3200 and took off on the last lap. She dug deeper than ever, pushed herself, and moved from 5th to 3rd in a commanding finish to earn her spot in MOC. Anna came to the team last spring as a completely new runner and is realizing that she has so much room to grow in the longer distance events. Her grit will continue to set her apart and lead the way.”

All told, with standout senior runners like Massey, Cook and Privitere now moving on, yet others such as Wilson, Schaller and distance standout Matt Petrocelli all due back in the fall for cross country under new coach Matt Bach, the rich MKA track tradition established by Fleming will march on, and even as Basmajian prepares for his family’s move back to the Richmond, Va. Area to start the next episode in their lives, he will never forget his eight seasons with the late, great coach he knew mostly as a friend.

“I’ve had the opportunity to coach with Tom for the last eight years and a total of 17 out of 24 possible seasons,” Basmajian explained. “That’s a lot of stories! But it’s also a lot of mentoring, learning, and development. What started out as a distinct head coach / assistant coach relationship turned in to a respected and mutual appreciation of running knowledge and coaching. Tom trusted me to know what to do, how to build progressions and adjust workouts, and to make calls during meets. These were decisions and actions that never would have been possible at the beginning of my coaching career. But, I had the opportunity to talk with and learn from a coaching legend and develop the necessary skills. Now, in the last seven weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to lead this team on one of our more storied runs as a collective group. Through the shock and tragedy, this group has come together and achieved results that we collectively had not done in the past. We have seen at least four school records broken, 2 meet records, season goals achieved, and countless new personal bests set. There hasn’t been a meet that has gone by without the team earning at least 3 or 4 new bests. It’s a tremendous streak. Seeing new bests by tenths of a second is one thing. But having athletes knock off seconds and then come back a couple weeks later and knock off another couple seconds is amazing. Although the circumstances around the season are not what any of us would want or hope for, I will always take the experience and the pride of being the coach of this remarkable group of athletes with me. I’ve learned as much from them as they have from me. These experiences as a head coach and as an assistant to such an influential personality and leader will always be with me.” 

Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister

Amherst-bound MKA star Billy Massey (left) ran for three-plus years under the tutelage of friend and coach Tom Fleming who passed away in April and left a heartbroken MKA and track squad that had to cope with their collective grief while continuing on with Fleming in mind.


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