Natalie Bower - Sophia Ziemian - North Allegheny:
Turning unmet goals into new opportunities.
Disappointed. Inconsolable. Devastated.
Those are just a few of the words that coaches and athletes used following performances at the PIAA State Championships on November 1st. Performances that they say did not meet their goals, or their expectations.
Two of the teams came into the meet ranked 1st in the state and left Hershey without making the podium – which is reserved for the top two teams. Another team came into the meet ranked 2nd in the state and used every ounce of willpower to earn their precious place on the awards stand – albeit a second.
But with cross country runners and their coaches, taking the long view seems to come quite naturally – so the disappointment and sadness appear to have been short-lived.
Ahhhhh... the comfort of those 6th grade songs.
Greater Latrobe senior Natalie Bower came into her final PIAA state meet with very high expectations, for herself, and for her team. And not necessarily in that order. She had been the number one runner on the state championship team as a freshman, and in her first three visits to Hershey for the big meet, she had three fourth place medals to show for her efforts. Bower wanted a first... and she wanted to give her team that one point that would hopefully lead to an upset of the defending state champs from Emmaus.
The team knew that was a tall order, but they figured if they each ran their best races, and Emmaus had a hiccup or two, they might have a chance.
Bower was on her way to what she hoped would be the state title she had been chasing for four years. At the mile, she was not just in the lead pack... she was either first or second and in position to make a push.
But during the second mile, something happened to her that had never occurred before. "In my entire running career – since I was seven years old – I have not had that happen to me in a race," Bower says. "5k's, cross country, track, whatever. I didn't know what to do."
What 'that' was, was a side stitch. A cramp in her side that made it very painful to breath, and obviously, to race as hard as she needed to race.
Bower remembered hearing that raising your arm above your head could help. But the damage was done. "When we started going downhill after the two mile and girls started passing me, I literally thought, 'what's happening?'"
The pain continued to get worse, and for the first time ever for Bower, the thought that she might not be able to finish crossed her mind.
But this is Natalie Bower we're talking about here.
"I knew I had to finish the race. I thought of the team when it happened. No questions asked. If I'm walking, I'm getting to the finish."
The pain subsided to the point that Bower could begin to try to regain some ground. She could see her place, and by the bottom of the last hill, she caught her teammate, junior Mary Jo Jakubek. The two encouraged each other up the hill, and Jakubek and Bower would finish 9th and 10th respectively.
When told they had taken 2nd place, the team was genuinely pleased. But for the seniors, Bower and teammate Abby Hewitt – it was slightly bittersweet. Hewitt had been running several races stride for stride with Bower, and would finish in one of the most difficult spots of all – one second from a medal.
Latrobe assistant coach Todd Simpson says that the attitude of the team was exactly that set by the senior leaders Bower and Hewitt. "We win as a team and we finished 2nd as a team." On the bus ride home, Simpson says he was impressed with their resilience. "Kids are better at bouncing back than coaches. And sometimes all it takes is a little silliness.
That lighter-than-disappointment attitude came from an experience each of the girls had in common – a 6th grade camping trip the school does every year. "They were just goofy," Simpson said admiringly. "They were singing 6th grade camp songs. And it was exactly what they needed."
If it weren't for bad luck...
To understand what happened to heavy AA favorite Lewisburg, it's good to understand that like Latrobe and the other favorite who came up short of a spot on the podium - there were no excuses offered. It's not in their DNA.
But stuff happens, and it does affect the outcome.
In 2007, the Dragons lost Sophia Ziemian to a stress fracture prior to the state meet; a loss that all but took away any chance of winning a state title.
Enter 2008, and with Ziemian healthy the entire season, and with the improvement she showed along with fellow senior Kiah Hardcastle, expectations were high. Add the fact that sophomore Shannon Wright had shown the most dramatic improvement on the team, and had moved into the front pack of most races, meant the anticipation of a state title was almost palpable.
But two of the top three were not themselves on the day of the race. Hardcastle had been fighting some shin pain for a few weeks – and the hilliest course they faced all year would provide little respite for that kind of pain.
The team results were known rather quickly, and showed a well-earned repeat on the top of the podium by Central Cambria, along with a great race day performance by District 10's West Middlesex. The 21 point margin that left Lewisburg off the podium was not easy to take. Coach Mark Sundberg said that a few of the girls took longer cool-downs than normal. "I think they were more disappointed for Coach (Ron) Hess and I than for themselves. That goes back to the strong family ties we try to bring to the program."
But the biggest individual surprise of the season also happened to be the sickest. She just didn't know it at the time, and neither did the team or coaches.
Shannon Wright would struggle through her toughest race of the year, and finish 48th.
She would hit the tent and sleep for two hours. Something was definitely wrong.
That something turned out to be a diagnosis of pneumonia which came the day after the race.
The team had a big bright spot as Ziemian smiled her way across the finish line for a state title (She did not run until 9th grade). She had gone out hard (5:27) in order to keep the competition honest. Her time of 18:52 was six seconds slower than the course record she set in September. But the strategy, according to Sundberg, was simply to win. And for Hardcastle, this was her fourth straight trip to the state meet, and her third medal. (She was 77th as a freshman). Those are no small achievements. No Lewisburg athlete – male or female – had ever accomplished that fete, according to Sundberg.
But Sundberg says it wasn't long before the team was looking ahead. After all, 2006 was the first time the team had ever qualified for the state meet. In watching the accomplishments of Ziemian and Hardcastle, along with the dramatic improvement of Wright, the team has proof that hard work brings rewards. "They were already talking about next year," Sundberg shared. "They know they could be a great invitational team next year. And that was part of their coping. This was not their ending."
One point might as well be a hundred. It certainly would be easier to take.
North Allegheny came into the state meet having beaten all the top contenders at the late September Carlisle Invitational. That race helped propel them to the top of the rankings. And continued strong races through the remainder of their season helped to keep them there, including a gaudy 30-second spread in a dominating win at the District 7 (WPIAL) Championships.
In 2007, this team had come in with one of their strongest squads in years. They have ten state titles to go with two-runner-up trophies. But their last title was in 1997. So last year, with two front-running seniors, they were poised to return to the top of the podium. But a strong North Penn team and a surging (and defending national champion) Coatesville, made North Allegheny's big day into a 3rd place showing by just three points.
At the start of the 2007 season, then junior Patrick Morgan had quietly expressed the idea that the 2008 team would be even better. With the emergence of sophomore Ryan Gil, and the improvement by Morgan and others, he was absolutely right.
But things happen in a big race, and in this year's race, 2nd man Chase Broussard would have to gut out the final two miles on the course, chewing up a suddenly shoe-less foot. Running as their #3, the team score would eventually show a one-point difference between the podium and 3rd place for the 2nd year in a row.
Head coach Jim LeDonne said there was absolutely no finger-pointing by this team. And he had high praise for the teams ahead of them – teams they had beaten handily head-to-head earlier in the year. "North Penn would have been tough to beat even if our boys all had good races. And the athletes and coaches of LaSalle should be commended on how they built their race from mile one to the finish."
(For more on the 2008 North Allegheny race, read "Third place in Hershey disappoints NA Runners - by Rich Emert in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette"
That's why there's always another race.
Looking ahead for what they consider their best races of the season may not be that far in the future for Natalie Bower, Sophia Ziemian and North Allegheny.
Bower and Ziemian will try to extend their XC careers by earning a trip to San Diego for the Foot Locker Championships.
And North Allegheny; running as the Wexford Flats RC; will toe the line on the same day at the Northeast NXN Regional Qualifiers in their bid to make a trip to Portland for the Nike Cross Nationals.
Because they've come too far and put in too much work to let opportunities like these pass them by.