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Claire Daniels and the New Milford girls’ cross country team are off to a strong start and are turning heads in the SWC.

New Milford improved to 4-0 a sweep against Abbott Tech and defending SWC champion Newtown last week in which the top four finishers all hailed from New Milford.

Junior captain Daniels led the pack, placing first individually for the first time this season with a time of 18:52.

“This was her first win for her and first time sub 19 (minutes) this year, and on a hard course which is always impressive,” New Milford coach Giles Vaughan said. “When girls can run sub-20 that’s really good. I think we had 25 girls in the state that could do it last year, so it is really impressive.”

Maddie Sweeny, Sydney Kelleher and Shea Zeitler took second through fourth place, respectively, to solidify the New Milford victory.

“This is a new team and we are definitely a lot better than we have been in years past,” Daniels said. “We were kind of expecting this coming into the year. We had a really good summer and have been looking forward to this year for a while now.”

In the team’s first competition against Brookfield and Bethel, Daniels finished second overall behind Bethel’s Ava Graham and was followed by Sweeny, Kelleher and Zeitler in the same order as New Milford took the two-five spots individually.

“I think last week it was just my first time racing against anyone in six months,” Daniels said. “So this time I was more used to the pacing and everything. Over the summer my training pace was a lot faster than years before and I upped my mileage as well which has helped with confidence going into races.”

Daniels has been among the top runners in the state since she broke out onto the scene her freshman year, finishing second in the State Open behind another SWC opponent in Kate Wiser.

“I think people forget she was second in the State Open as a freshman,” Vaughan said. “Freshman can always surprise you and Claire was a surprise, she didn’t run like this in middle school. When she got to us at this level I had two seniors (Katie Delaney and Brooke Morabito) who are running D1 right now who took her under their wing and really brought her along.”

As a sophomore Daniels continued to impress, finishing 6th in the State Open, but with no state-wide competitions this fall, the SWC Championship will be the most prestigious meet of the season for New Milford and will be loaded with some of the top talent in the state.

Daniels, who adapted a more difficult training program this summer is expected to be among the top finishers in that race.

“This is the first year we’ve upped her training,” Vaughan said. “I like to kind of take an easy approach with young runners to make sure they have a college career. I think we see a lot kids that are young and really good train hard throughout high school, and I track a lot of runners in college which has led me to think it is a tough thing to continue. We had a conversation about it and we both agreed this would be the year we would start to up the training.”

A team SWC title also appears to be within reach this season as Daniels’ teammates have been performing at a high level as well.

“I think the other thing that has helped Claire is that we have a really solid pack behind her,” Vaughan said. “She has had some really good training partners this summer and we’ve incorporated circuit training, a strengthening program and mental work like race visualization and positivity. The other thing that is impressive about this group is they have had to overcome a lot. Finding ways to be together with everything going on and training together, their summer work has been evident. That front pack has really worked their tails off.”

This season has also highlighted Daniels’ graceful shift from underclassmen to team leader, taking lessons she learned from senior teammates during her freshman season.

“They were super helpful coming into my freshman year,” Daniels said. “Having them there, even from just a mental standpoint, having girls that I trusted and knew with me the whole time was a big help.”

“Claire and Maddie Sweeny are both junior captains this year,” Vaughan said. “Claire was a no brainer. The kids really respect her not only for her running ability but because she is a quiet leader. She is really good about picking her moments, when to interject with the team. You wouldn’t know from the outside looking in but I see it every day.”

With a new training regimen and a strong supporting cast, Daniels is determined to quietly sneak her way into the conversation of top runners in the state again.

“She doesn’t really get the attention she deserves, because her personality lends to that,” Vaughan said. “She is a super quiet kid, you would never know she is great at anything, which is one of her best qualities. She just goes out and does it and I think that is why at the state level she doesn’t get her fair shake if you will.”

For now, like so many others, Daniels will take the season meet by meet and appreciate every second of it.

“I am just really happy to be out here racing again,” Daniels said. “I wasn’t really sure what the season was going to look like with COVID and everything so I am really happy to be back.”