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Winter Track: Riverhead’s Cunha lunges forward for state medal

As the top-seeded runner in his heat, Eric Cunha knew he pretty much had to win his heat in order to walk away with a state medal. That’s a lot easier said than done. Still, the Riverhead High School senior was determined and not to be denied.

Running neck and neck with Owego senior Clayton Wolfe down the final stretch of the 1,000-meter race, Cunha, in one final supreme effort, lunged for the finish line and fell forward. He needed every bit of that effort to win the heat, claiming seventh place overall and a medal in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Championships at Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex on Staten Island Saturday.

“Hold nothing back, leave it all on the track,” said Cunha whose final time of 2 minutes, 32.32 seconds was a personal record by one second. “I knew it was my last 50 meters of winter season. I kind of wanted to go out with a bang.”

Fairport junior Ben Bulkeley was first in 2:26.78. The top eight runners received medals.

Cunha, looking calm and composed at the starting line, made sure to avoid being boxed in once the starting gun went off. He was third after one lap on the banked 200-meter track before moving up to second for the next three laps. Then Cunha made his move.

“He waited till the right moment and at the last 100 meters, and even the last 50 meters, it was all heart, all determination and a personal best, which is not a surprise because he put every possible ounce of effort that he had into that race,” said assistant coach Justin Cobis, who works with Riverhead’s long-distance runners.

Cunha hasn’t committed to a college yet, but he believes he will run cross country and track at Stony Brook University.

He said it was bittersweet for him Friday when he learned that he missed being included in the fastest heat by one place.

“It would look good to come in the top of my heat, but I also knew that it would be as hard as hell to break into that medal-winning time,” he said after his final high school indoor race. “I didn’t think I was going to have to push myself that hard. That other kid [Wolfe] pushed me really hard. I was so happy that he did because I can honestly say I owe this medal to him. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I would have pushed so hard that last lap.”

“It’s the most rewarding feeling I’ve had so far this season,” he continued. “I’ve really worked so hard to get here, and I thought getting here would be the challenge, but I never thought it would be that much of a challenge.”

Riverhead coach Sal Loverde congratulated Cunha afterward and admired his reward. “That’s a nice medal,” Loverde said. “A personal best and a medal at a state meet. It doesn’t get better than that.”

Cunha had to agree.

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful medal,” he said. “It’s probably one of the nicest medals I’ve ever gotten.”

And it has quite a story to go with it.

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Photo caption: Riverhead senior Eric Cunha running in the 1,000 meters at the state meet Saturday at the Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex on Staten Island. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)