COLUMN: A feel-good cross country story

By TOM WILLIAMS

The Ocean City High School boys cross country team finished first in its race – the Robin Hood Run – during the Disney Cross Country Classic in Florida on Friday. The OCHS girls finished second and both JV teams did very well.

The boys were led by Owen Ritti in sixth place and the trio of Anthony Conte, Max Kelly and Luke Kramer, who were eighth through 10th. And Frank Fabi, Cameron DiTroia and Michael Kelly were 14th through 16th, giving the Raiders seven of the first 16 runners.

The Boys JV team, by the way, finished first in the Hercules Run (all of the races are named after Disney characters) and had the first six runners in the race. Eric Sacramento was first, followed by Colin Quade, Nigel Collins, Brendan Schlatter, Nicholas Falzetti and Josh Hutchinson.

The varsity girls team was second to The Ursuline School, whose runners finished first, second and fifth. Casey McLees, who had missed most of the dual meet season, led the Raiders with a sixth place finish. And Alexa Palmieri, who has also been out of action most of the season, finished 10th. Becca Millar was 14th, Emma Sardy 19th, Erin Hanlon 28th, Isabella Padula 32nd and Reghan Handley 33rd.

The girls JV team finished fourth in the Mulan Race with Abby Maxwell crossing in 12th place, Vanessa Karayiannis 14th, Sydney Rossiter 18th, Maggie Halbruner 20th and Courtney Stoerrle 23rd.

Ocean City ran well and the student-athletes, their coaches and chaperones are spending the rest of the weekend enjoying the Disney parks and other Florida amusements.

But that is just part of this story.

Let’s let boys cross country coach Matt Purdue tell the real story.

“We were originally scheduled to leave at 6 p.m. on Thursday,” Purdue explained, “and the flight was delayed and eventually cancelled. Bad weather in Denver had held them up and they had to cancel because the crew would be on duty too many hours. So we needed to find an alternative.”

Ocean City was flying on Frontier Airlines and had races to run on Friday.

“The coaches – Trish Henry, Steve Hoffman and I – went to virtually every other airline in the Philadelphia Airport looking for another flight to Orlando,” Purdue continued. “None of them could accommodate such a large group (there were 79 people), especially within the cost limits. After two hours of trying the airlines the three of us got together and basically decided we needed to go home. So, we contacted parents and Sheppard Bus Company and started making plans to get the kids home safely.

“Around 10 o’clock we told them we had no alternative but to cancel the trip and head home. They were disappointed, of course. So were we. They had been fundraising for two years for the trip.”

But social media came to the rescue.

“We were leaving from the luggage carousel,” Purdue said, “when a guy in a red jacket came up to me and asked me if I was some kind of coach. I asked him who was asking. He was, after all, a stranger. Then he said he was looking for a team that was stranded in the airport. I told him that could be me.”

The guy in the red jacket was Bulent Dogan from Delta Airlines. The runners on the OCHS teams had been tweeting and otherwise messaging all the airlines asking for help. And Delta got the message.

“He told me they wanted to help,” Purdue explained, “and they were going to try to figure out a way to get our teams to Florida. I said I wasn’t sure if this was a miracle or a practical joke but he assured me they were serious. He told me the Delta corporate office saw the tweets and called them in Philly. The problem was, Delta doesn’t actually fly from Philadelphia to Orlando. They had to find a plane and a crew and get TSA to re-open but they really wanted to help. He asked us not to leave the airport, to give them a chance to help.

“We waited in the hallway for more than an hour. We told them we needed to know by midnight because if they couldn’t help we had to get these kids home. He begged us to give them a chance. So we waited. At 2 a.m. he told us it was looking good. Just before 4 a.m. a McDonnell-Douglas MD-88 taxied to the gate and we took off soon thereafter. We were the only people on the plane and we arrived in Orlando around 6 a.m.”

Keep in mind, the purpose of the trip was to run a long distance and waiting for hours in an airport and arriving just hours before the races were to start, might not be conducive to a good performance.

“We got to our hotels around 7:15-8:00,” Purdue said, “and the athletes got about 90 minutes sleep before we had to head for the meet. Some of them never went to sleep.

“One of the people from Frontier Airlines has a house in Ocean City and she was very nice about everything. Nobody did anything wrong it was just a problem created by bad weather elsewhere. The two guys we dealt with from Delta – Dogan, the guy who first approached me, and Ira Parker – were terrific. Ira was an athlete at Camden High School and he told me he had a soft spot for athletes and they were going to get us to our meet. Those two guys were two of the nicest people I have ever met.

The OCHS cross country teams celebrate before boarding a Delta plane for Orlando. Standing near the center in the black jacket is Ira Parker, with Bulent Dogan to his right – the two guys who helped save the teams’ trip.

“Before we left some parents had already arrived at the airport and a bus had arrived for us. They waited around to see what would happen.”

And it happened.

“Trish and I were both very upset during this whole thing that the kids might not get a chance to run,” Purdue said. “When it came together we both couldn’t get over that there are people out there who would go to such extraordinary means to help a bunch of strangers and how nice they were about it. The other interesting thing is how the students reacted. They were disappointed but they were calm and nobody was really complaining. They just hung in there.

“The incredible thing is, when Dugan first approached me, we were on our way out. Had he come a few minutes later he would have missed us and we would have been headed home.”

The runners of both OCHS cross country teams have a lot of accomplishments. They just completed undefeated championship seasons in the Cape-Atlantic League. Many of them were on last year’s teams when both won South Jersey titles. And they performed very well at Walt Disney World on Friday. But the way they got to Florida is the story they will be telling and re-telling for decades.

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