Open spaces are where Alli Kenealy was most comfortable.

Her ability to commune with nature, while competing at Shelton High in cross country and track earned Kenealy a spot at the University of New Haven.

“I played soccer my freshman year,” said Kenealy, a recent Shelton High graduate. “I thought if I continued playing, I would be better at it. Then I tried cross country. I guess I just liked the freedom. It was me versus me; me versus the clock.”

Cross country led to track, which led to New Haven, where she signed a letter of intent to compete.

“UNH has a top criminal justice major and academics are the reason I’m there,” Kenealy said. “Getting to run is a bonus. One of my aunts is a detective in Bridgeport and that surely influenced me. Right now, becoming a police officer is something I’d like to do, but I have a long time to make that decision.”

Patience has been a key aspect of Kenealy’s rise.

“I tried out for the cross country team in middle school and didn’t make it,” she said. “I joined the track team at Shelton and was a sprinter my first year. I was at the lower end in sprints, so I switched to long distance running and tried cross country again.”

SHS girls’ cross country coach Kate Tucker said: “Alli is an incredible student-athlete. She worked harder than any runner I've seen in a long time to get into the top of the pack. She was captain of the team her senior year and she took her role extremely seriously.

“Alli is incredibly personable and always seemed to know how to communicate with her teammates, regardless of what grade they were in or any differences they may have had. She was out to make the team a family, because I think she knew that that was the way to success for us.

“As for Alli as an individual, she's currently 12th on Shelton's all-time fastest cross country runners. She's not getting bumped off that list any time soon, and I think that was one of her goals. She wanted to run her best so that she could leave a lasting mark on the team. Alli has always set really high goals for herself, but she always took setbacks in stride. She wouldn't let a bad race or time that wasn't what she was going for ruin her day or week or season.

“She just showed up at practice the next day ready to work and looked at each race as a new opportunity to do her best. I always knew that with Alli I didn't have to worry that she wasn't giving her all. She gave 100 percent every time she practiced and every time she raced. And that's a hard thing to do for a lot of athletes. I can't wait to see what she does at the next level because I think she's still got a lot to give to the sport.”

“It was amazing,” Kenealy said. “Cross country was a way for me to stay in shape for track, but Coach Tucker made it so much more. She really supported me and helped me so much. Helping the younger runners was easy for me, because I had struggled and knew that if you work hard you would improve.”

Indoor track and outdoor track kept her busy.

“Alli was one of the hardest working athletes I have ever coached,” Shelton girls track coach Jason Kymer said. “Not blessed with pure talent, she quite literally earned everything she accomplished. She has been a pivotal part of the success the program has experience in the last few years. Alli’s leadership as a senior has been crucially important to paving the way for our younger athlete. Her tenacity will be missed, and I wish her the best as she competes at UNH for the next four years.”

“Running track gave me such a sense of accomplishment,” Kenealy said. “Sophomore year wasn’t good, but I kept improving times by working with and getting help from the top girls on the team. Times got better and that made me proud. All my coaches worked hard with me to get better. They challenged me.”

Over the summer, when her phone alarm went off Keneally was raring to... well. “Running by myself isn’t something I look forward to anymore,” she said. “Having a teammate with me always made it fun. I report August 18 to start training at UNH. It is a new school, with new teammates so it will be a little weird. But I’m so excited to try something new.”