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DeMatha cross country wins WCAC championship, coach inducted into hall of fame

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Posted on: November 3, 2022

By Chris McManes

The DeMatha cross country team won the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship at Kenilworth Park in Northeast Washington on Saturday Oct. 29. The next day, Stags Coach Cory Puffett was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.

In other words, it was one heck of a weekend for the seventh-year coach and DeMatha graduate. 

“On Saturday morning, I watched my kids run their hearts out and put in some great performances,” Puffett said. “Then today to get inducted into the hall of fame of the greatest high school in the world is, I’m at a loss for words on how to describe the feeling.

“It’s just surreal.” 

DeMatha Cross Country Coach Cory Puffett (center) holds the WCAC championship plaque with assistant coaches David Hoke (left) and Anthony Battle. Puffett was a freshman on the Stags’ last conference championship team. Courtesy of Antoine Keels

The Stags, who won their first WCAC title since 2006, edged Gonzaga, 44-47. With points assigned by your finish (first gets one point, second gets two, etc.), the lower the score the better. The top-5 fastest runners for each team score. If two or more teams are tied, the score for the sixth-fastest counts. 

Junior Sayid Shakur paced DeMatha by running the 5,000-meter (3.1 mile) course in 16:47 to place third overall. Senior Jayden Keels was fourth (16:50); senior Christopher Toomer finished eighth (17:11); and junior Graham Fenn was 10th (17:16). 

The Eagles held a 19-25 lead after their top-4 runners crossed the finish line. The Stags emerged victorious when senior Ian Parsons placed 19th (17:31), nine spots ahead of Gonzaga’s fifth-place runner. 

Puffett said it took about 10 minutes for him to know that his squad had won the fourth conference crown in school history. An assistant coach, Anthony Battle, told him.

“I was like, ‘really’? He’s like, ‘yeah, we won,’” Puffett recalled. “At that point, the emotions kind of hit me [and] tears came to me eyes. It was pure excitement. I don’t know how else to describe it. Just excitement for the work that we put in to be paying off in that way and excitement for the kids to get to be a part of it.

“Especially for the seniors who have been such a big part of building this team.”

Members of the DeMatha cross country team celebrate after edging Gonzaga to win the program’s fourth conference title. Courtesy of Antoine Keels

Puffett became head coach in 2016 when he succeeded his father, Michael. In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, the team only competed in two small invitationals.

DeMatha had to cancel a few practices in 2021 because of COVID-19 issues, but did run a full season. The Stags placed second behind St. John’s in the WCAC championship, their highest finish in 14 years. 

“We came out of COVID stronger than we went into it, somehow, and a lot of that is thanks to the seniors,” Puffett said. “So, to give them a championship in that way was huge.”

Puffett gets hall pass

Puffett on Sunday Oct. 30 was one of 12 individuals and two teams to be enshrined in the school’s Hall of Fame. He is described in the event booklet as “the greatest cross country runner in DeMatha history.”

As a freshman in 2006, Puffett placed second at the WCAC meet to help the Stags capture the championship. He won the event the next three years. His time of 16:02 as a senior is still the meet record. 

The Washington Post named him first-team All-Met his junior season and 2009 Male Cross Country Athlete of the Year. That same season, he became the first WCAC cross country athlete to qualify for the year-end nationals. 

Puffett’s dominance earned him a full scholarship to the University of Maryland. His coach, Desmond Dunham, now coaches at St. John’s. 

Maryland dropped cross country after Puffett’s sophomore year. He remained on scholarship before transferring to what is now University of Maryland Global Campus. He graduated in 2016 with a bachelor of arts in communications. He teaches English and journalism (print and broadcast) at DeMatha.

This calendar year has also been memorable on a personal level. Puffett and his wife, Rishonda, were married July 10.

DeMatha’s cross country champions

The Stags’ 2022 championship is their only one without having the No. 1 overall runner. Kyle Sullivan, under coach Tim Breen, placed first in 1988 to lead DeMatha to the Washington Metropolitan Athletic Conference title. 

Tim Briles won the 1996 WCAC individual championship, and Robert Patterson took it in 2006. Bruce Schaper coached both teams. 

“As an athlete it’s really special to be part of a team championship. I remember that ’06 team very fondly,” Puffett said. “But, as a coach, I have my fingers in every aspect of the team. 

“This being my seventh year, I’ve done a lot of work to try to build a culture within the cross country program here at DeMatha. … To win the whole thing really is special.”

Chris McManes (mick-maynz) covers DeMatha athletics for the Hyattsville Life & Times. 

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