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Niskayuna distance star Connor HOF bound

Niskayuna distance star Connor HOF bound

Won two state championships
Niskayuna distance star Connor HOF bound
Gary Connor of Niskayuna won the state cross country title in 1968 at Sunken Meadow State Park.
Photographer: PHOTO PROVIDED

Can you imagine running several miles with only one shoe on?

Gary Connor doesn't have to. He did it, and even more, the Niskayuna High School graduate won the race.

That was back in 1967 at the Section II Class A cross country championship meet at Central Park in Schenectady, when Connor copped the top prize for the first of two times.

"It was a rainy and miserable day," Connor said of his run on the mostly road course. "Luckily, I was wearing socks, but it still hurt."

While a more conventional and even bigger victory came soon after at the state meet, that crazy race at Central Park in the fall of his junior year will no doubt be a topic of conversation Saturday when Connor is inducted along with 10 others into the Greater Capital Region Track, Field and Cross Country Hall of Fame at The Albany Marriott.

"My coach [Tom Howley] devised a system where we'd have five in the box, and I was in the middle, so I got a chance to run straight out," Connor said. "Turning onto the road [after a long grassy stretch to begin the race], someone stepped on my shoe, and it started to come off. I'm thinking I can't run with it halfway on, so I got rid of it. I just kept running."

Connor ran for four varsity seasons, though it was football that he dreamed of playing in his years before high school.

"I wasn't going to run cross country. I was going to play football, and in eighth grade, I signed up to play freshman," Connor said. "A friend of mine who was a year older said you're going to get killed and you should try cross country. I was five-foot nothing and 80 pounds, and he goes, 'They'll pick you up and use you as the ball.'"

Connor quickly assumed the lead running position at Niskayuna, and at the end of his freshman season, found himself at the state meet where he finish in 50th place. As a sophomore, he took a major leap forward and placed second at the state meet, after taking second at the sectionals.

"I ran well," the 68-year-old retired Niskayuna police officer said of his sophomore state meet effort. "With 100 yards to go, I'm winning the race, but I'm hearing footsteps. I looked over my left shoulder and got passed on my right shoulder."

Connor won the state meet title in 1967 and again as a senior in 1968, where he won by 33 seconds, and set a Sunken Meadow State Park (Long Island) course record by 31 seconds.

"Another rainy day," said Connor, the only male from Section II to win back-to-back state titles. "It was a really wet course, but I seemed to run pretty well in that kind of weather."

"I never saw him in a cross country race because he was always so far ahead of the pack," said Rick Stellrecht, a former Daily Gazette sportswriter and editor who ran for Mohonasen and, like Connor, graduated in 1969. "In track, I was rather mediocre, so he'd always lap me in the two mile. Once, he double-lapped me."

The course record Connor set that fall day at the 1968 state meet was one of nine he established during his scholastic career.

"When I started winning races, my dad [Robert Connor] gave me one of the best pieces of advice. 'Never let your head get too big,'" said Connor, who, with his wife Carol, has three children and seven grandchildren. "I never, ever went into a race cocky. Every single race, I had butterflies."

When the starting gun sounded, though, Connor said those butterflies quickly went away.

"One thing I was able to do was put a lot of things out of my mind," said the two-time Suburban Council and Grout Run champion. "Once the gun went off, I took off and ran."

"It was too bad that he ran in an era prior to all of the postseason opportunities runners now have. Back then, it was sectionals, state meet and nothing more until spring," Stellrecht, a Hall of Fame committee member, said. "Now, the fall season stretches right through November with the Federation Meet, Foot Locker and Nike Cross National qualifier. Gary may have sparkled in meets like that."

Among the final highlights of Connor's high school career came in his senior outdoor track season in 1969 when he popped a 9:19.2 for two full miles to rank No. 2 on the all-time Section II list, and later won at that distance at the sectional championships. He's knees and shins were hurting by then, and after giving it a go at SUNY Cobleskill for a year, he called it a career.

In 1992, Connor was inducted into the Niskayuna High School Hall of Fame. He spent 25 years as an assistant running coach at his alma mater.

"I had great teammates and great tutelage," Connor said. "I had Tom Howley as a teacher in elementary school and, when I joined the [cross country] team, he poked some fun at me, saying, 'You used to get beat by the girls.' As time went by, he sought out ways to make me a better runner."

Joining Connor in the second Hall of Fame class will be coaching standouts Cliff Lehman (over 30 years at CBA) and Ed Springstead (over 60 years at Colonie and Shaker); distance runners Barry Brown (Colonie 1962, Providence 1966), Tom Dalton (CBA-Syracuse 1976, Siena 1981) and Elizabeth Maloy DeBole (Holy Names 2003, Georgetown 2007); heptathlon/pentathlon specialist Heidi Mann Vittengl (Queensbury 1982, Florida 1987); jumper/sprinter/hurdler Vince McCardle (Vincentian 1960, Manhattan 1964); high jumper Sarah Palmer (Schuylerville 2011, Penn State 2015); jumper/hurdler/pentathlete Jen Petersen Jette (Fonda 1993, Michigan 1997); and sprinter Klarissa Ricks (Holy Names 2011, Syracuse 2015).

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Jim Schiltz at 518-395-3143, [email protected] or @jim_schiltz on Twitter.

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