All photos by Phil Grove
Muddying rain, more than enough wind and history at every turn.
Those are just a few of the ways to describe the 2016 WPIAL championships as a four-time champ was crowned and a major change occurred at the top of the AAA boys' standings amid conditions that slowly eroded away at Cooper's Lake.
Seneca Valley moves to top of AAA
One of the state's perennial powers, North Allegheny had owned the AAA boys' race ever since the WPIAL meet left Slippery Rock University after 2004. The Tigers had some close calls through the years, but for 11 consecutive meets, North Allegheny had walked away with the top prize.
Steve Strelick's Seneca Valley Raiders were ready for a change. Putting its top three in the top seven overall, Seneca Valley could not be caught by the tightly bunched Tigers, claiming the final team championship of the day by a 55-62 count.
"Just to go out and do our thing," Strelick said of his team's strategy for derailing their neighboring rivals. "We've been training, we've been practicing since the summer and we have a ton of respect for that program. We know it's really good.
"We put ourselves in the conversation. Today, it was just going out and executing."
Heading into the title race, the two squads had met four times previously in 2016, with each winning a pair. North Allegheny won the most recent meeting at the Tri-State Coaches meet a week ago, throwing down another miniscule 1-5 spread of just 6.4 seconds and a 1-7 gap of under 8.5 seconds.
Seneca Valley, which had finished second to NA three times during the Tigers' WPIAL reign, responded Thursday in the only way that might best its rivals, putting its top trio ahead of NA's and having a 28-second scoring gap.
"We knew it was going to take that," Strelick said of a tight pack. "We knew it was going to take about five in the top 20 because they are so super loaded with depth."
Sophomore Sam Owori led the new champions in fourth at 16:44, with senior Trey Razanauskas and sophomore Seth Ketler only seconds behind. NA's lead group of junior TJ Robinson, senior Bobby Lutz and frosh Daniel McGoey followed close behind to cut into the Raiders' advantage.
Combined, the top two teams had half of the race's top 22 finishers. And it was the Raiders' quick start that could not be matched in the sloppy, windy conditions.
"It's important for those guys," Strelick said of the significance of the team crown to his program. "Ever since last year, they had been talking about it. They wanted to make it interesting.
"That was the motto - we want to try to make it interesting. We want to see if we can't make a real run at this. I'm excited for these guys. We've got a great group of guys. They really bonded together and showed what a team can do when they are all on the same page."
Butler claimed the other state team qualifying berth behind another strong run from junior Noah Beveridge, who was second overall in 16:35.
Mark Provenzo of Franklin Regional moved quickly to the front and was never headed. The senior added to his collection of first-place finishes in 2016 and put his name on the list of favorites for the PIAA crown in Hershey with a time of 16:18.
Abdalah finishes perfect; Skolnekovich gets third title
Since the PIAA added a classification to cross country in 2012, the Class A girls' race at Cooper's Lake has known only two champions - Laurel's Emily Maxwell the inaugural year and Marianne Abdalah ever since. That story line held true once again as the Vincentian senior because just the second runner ever to sweep four District 7 titles.
Despite being shadowed almost half of the race by junior Jeanne Lauer of Shady Side Academy, Abdalah was victorious in the end, crossing the line in 19:23 for her biggest victory yet in an injury-affected 2016 season.
"It feels really great," the senior said of completing a four-peat to match the feat of Latrobe's Natalie Bower from 2005-08 in Class AAA. "I didn't know a month ago if I would even be here. Regardless of the time, I am so happy with today's race. Hopefully the state meet brings some more memories."
Per her front-running style and stranglehold she's had on Class A distance races in the state, Abdalah moved up the hill and to the lead of the pack. Lauer did not let go of the leader and maintained contact for about 1.5 miles, letting the perennial champion know that the 2016 race would not be another walk in the park.
"You could hear her clicking at my heels," Abdalah said of Lauer, who was only 2 seconds back at the mile and was the runner-up in 19:36. "When we came around after the big hill, she really started kicking it in.
"I could hear her spikes too through the mud. I was a little worried, but I tried to pull away as much as I could on the hills. She was a great competitor here today."
Although her margin of victory was the narrowest and her time was the slowest of her four WPIAL finals, Abdalah was the class of the field. Another sweep is possible for the senior as her three previous trips to Hershey resulted in PIAA XC gold medals.
In the most exciting run for individual glory on the afternoon, Quaker Valley's Zach Skolnekovich picked up his third consecutive AA district title in a hard-fought race with Waynesburg Central's Ben Bumgarner.
Breaking out of a pack of five that had set the pace through the opening 3,000 meters, Skolnekovich and Bumgarner dueled to the finish, with the Quaker having too much at the end in a 16:15 victory to the runner-up's 16:18.
"We were just kind of feeding off each other for a little bit," Skolnekovich said. "Neither of us wanted to take the lead at first, and then Ben took it. I was just trying to keep pace with him.
"He was looking really strong for half of (the final loop). I just thought, 'This is your last year, Zach. Do this for your teammates, do it for yourself. I just kind of dug deep and kind of took over from there. It was a great battle. Ben is a great competitor, and I'm looking forward to states and racing him there as well."
In Class A boys, Winchester Thurston went to the front and stayed there. The Bears had leads of more than 100 points at each of the mile checkpoints and also at the finish, with senior Ben Littmann leading a 1-2-3 overall sweep and its scoring five in the top 9 team placers. Riverview was second with 121.
Clara Savchik rolled away from the field in Class AAA, growing a 13-second gap at the mile to more than a minute at the finish. The NA junior hit the finish tape in 18:00 for the fastest time in the opening three girls races.
Oakland Catholic was just as dominant in the team standings as the Eagles finished with 39 points and three runners in the top six overall.