PHIL'S PIAA CHAMPS STORIES
Photos by Don Rich and Megan Zeller
Quaker Valley does monkey control for all who came before
If you weren’t close enough to hear it, you surely felt the shockwaves emanating Saturday afternoon from the Parkview Course in Hershey.
No, not another East Coast earthquake. Just the Quaker Valley cross country program unceremoniously throwing to the ground the oversized gorilla that some in the state had placed on their backs for not winning it all.
In 2011, the Quakers of Dave Noyes lived up to their season-long No. 1 PA Small Schools ranking, running the table from the preseason state poll through the awards podium in Hershey. Quaker Valley dominated Saturday’s 5,000-meter finale, placing all of its scoring runners ahead of runner-up North East’s No. 3 man.
“What they did here today was … for all those other guys,” Noyes, choking back tears, said of his squad’s resounding 90-181 victory in Class AA. “It’s for all those other guys. (This year’s team) wanted this as badly as those guys.
"That’s what I’m going to tell them. They got this for everybody that preceded them and themselves. And that’s what so important.”
The Quakers showcased the strong pack in Hershey that they used throughout the 2011 season, picking up headlining victories at the PIAA Foundation and WPIAL meets. The champions were well ahead in the standings at the mile and two-mile marks before expanding their cushion in the final mile.
Noyes felt the burden that recent Quaker Valley teams had to carry was unfair to his athletes in many respects.
“I didn’t really look at a monkey on our back for two reasons,” he said. “No. 1, that discounts everything the guys before them and the girls before them have accomplished. That’s to say that they were not successful teams. And if you have to win here to be a successful team, then that’s not fair.
“And once this monkey jumps off, another one’s going to (jump on) because we haven’t done it twice yet. We haven’t qualified for the national Nike race yet, so there’s always something.”
Swaying back and forth as he anxiously waited with a group of parents and coaches for notification of his team’s championship, Noyes broke into a smile when the trophy winning coaches for AA boys were summoned by the PIAA.
“The wait’s always difficult,” he said. “Even when we were second, you don’t know. You think you have a shot at it, but you don’t know.
“Coach cross country is all about waiting. You see them go off, and you wait until they come back. We’re used to that.”
Noyes’ reflection on his 15 years as Quaker Valley’s coach was brought full circle by Steve South, a senior member of his first state-qualifying team in 1998.
“He came from Philadelphia down here to watch this,” Noyes said. “He said I’m going to feel like my cross country high school career has finally been completed in about 45 minutes. That’s the way all those guys feel.”
Senior Nat Fox was a member of four consecutive team trips to Hershey and led the Quakers in this year’s championship race, going out on pace for the opening mile and finishing 11th overall.
“It’s amazing,” Fox said of being a champion after a four-year wait. “There’s no feeling that compares to it. My freshman year we lost by 2 points. That was so hard and I was especially hard on myself because I was sick and I had a horrible race. I knew even if I had an average race, we could have won that one.
“Every year it’s been trying to get redemption for that one race. This year is redemption, it’s really nice, it’s awesome.”
As a freshman, Fox was 135th overall before rocketing to 20th as a sophomore. Last year he was slowed by a stress fracture and was 66th across the line.
Noyes recalled the first state trip with the Quakers in his second season as coach. After finishing second to Shady Side Academy at the WPIAL meet, Quaker Valley felt ready for the next level
“We were full of ourselves, we thought wow this is just great,” he said. “Boy when it was done, we had an eye full and we thought how can we ever come up here and compete with the likes of this. So we set about working to do just that, and it’s been a labor of love for the past 15 years. Just getting that done is tremendous. It’s hard to describe.”
The Quakers opened 2011 with a third-place finish in the Red, White & Blue Invitational, finishing ahead of AAA state qualifiers Grove City, Kiski Area and Pittsburgh Central Catholic.
“We look at each race on the calendar and figure out where we want to be, who we want to be competitive with,” Noyes said.
In this year’s District 7 meet, the Quakers walked off with the title by 117 points. Junior Roy Hadfield was a breakthrough winner for Noyes from his No. 3 position, pulling teammates to second-, seventh-, eighth- and 11th-place finishes.
The championship for the Quaker Valley boys followed a third in 2010, seconds in 2008 and 2009, and a fifth in 2007.
Fox pointed to the close relationship between the 2011 squad and recent graduates of the program and the bond that held them together.
“They really wanted to get it done, and they were disappointed we couldn’t do it when they were around,” Fox said of his former teammates. “This year I tell them we did. We finally got the monkey off our back, we finally pulled through and did what we were supposed to do at the state meet.”
In addition to unloading their own burden, the 2011 Quakers also jettisoned a monkey from the backs of Class AA boys teams in District 7 (WPIAL). Neshannock was the last WPIAL representative to win the AA boys title in 1976 after being victorious in 1969, 1970 and 1975, with Bellevue tying for the 1972 crown.
“I am very pleased with (second place) because Quaker Valley was loaded,” North East coach Ted Miller said. “This was their year. There was just no way they could be denied.”
Boiling Springs senior Meredith Speakman slices 3:44 from her Parkview race in 2010.
To steal a line from the mega band U2, Meredith Speakman of Boiling Springs still hadn’t found what she was looking for after three seasons as a cross country runner.
Based on her breakthrough performance Saturday in the Class AA race, the senior discovered it in a big way. Speakman concluded a season overflowing with race times improved by sometimes three minutes or more from 2010 by finishing fourth in 18:59, less than 30 seconds behind arguably the best female runner in the state.
“I basically lived the running lifestyle,” Speakman said of her summer. “I made sure my diet was good, and I knew that when I came into mandatory camp for cross country season I would be doing well. I wanted to be really good. Senior year is my year.
“And it showed because I ran a 5K in the summer and my time was incredible. I ran a 19:43, and my best cross country time last year was 21 minutes plus or 22 minutes.”
A stress fracture her freshman year and other injuries her sophomore year slowed Speakman’s progress. Things started to change in 2010.
“My junior year we made it as a team,” she said. “This is really exciting, and I kind of got into it again.”
Scroll through the results of the 2010 state meet, and it takes a few seconds to reach the entry for Speakman. She finished 193rd overall in Class AA in 22:43 and was the Bubblers’ No. 3 runner.
Fast forward to 2011, and the search is over almost before it starts. Speakman was near the front from the start, checking in fourth at the mile in 5:38 and moving up to third a mile later in 11:44. She finished as the fourth and final runner under 19 minutes in Class AA, an improvement of a whopping 3:44 from a year earlier.
“All season we’re thinking hopefully she would be able to crack into that top 10, but to get in that top five,” coach Jim Boyer said. “I knew (top 10) was her goal, and it was really nice for her to be able to do that. To be in that next level, it is a good thing for her.”
As a first-year coach, Boyer didn’t know what to expect from the senior. He noted, however, that parents were telling him Speakman had “really, really improved.”
“She was strong the whole season, and it was evident that she was ready to do big things at the end of the season,” he said. “In distance running, they say you get out of it what you put in. She’s one of those examples because she really did that.”
The transformation began to take shape last spring when Speakman reached the state track meet in Shippensburg as an individual and member of the Bubblers’ 3,200 relay team. She failed to qualify for the final in the 1,600 run, but the relay placed fourth.
Speakman’s journey to the front of the pack wasn’t without its missteps or detours.
Ben Grove, a senior member of the Bubblers’ boys team that raced Saturday, offered to take Speakman on an overdistance run during the summer of 2011. The trip didn’t go exactly as planned.
“Ben’s one of my good friends on the team, and he took me on my first really long run,” Speakman said. “It was like 12 miles in the mountains, and we actually got lost and I was really mad because he didn’t know where we were at about 9 miles out.
“We finally found out where we were, but it was a good long run. That was the first time I did long runs, before it was like 6 miles. And it was like, ‘Eh, 6 miles is so long.’”
With a productive summer behind her, Speakman joined forces with teammate Lillie Brown – a junior who placed 14th at Hershey – to continue her climb to the top.
“Lillie and I have been training hard the entire season,” she said. “It’s good having someone right up there with you, pushing you the whole way.”
Back at Hershey on a different level, Speakman was prepared to put the strongest part of her race against the most difficult part of the Parkview Course.
“I knew that my strength was the middle of my race,” she said. “I can pick it up from there, pick people off and hook onto someone’s shoulder and keep that pace.
“I work my way through the race, and by the end I’m just exhausted. I’m not a sprinter at the end. A girl passed me at the end, and that hill just killed me.”
North Penn & Cardinal O'Hara: Tie-Breakers (every place counts)
In the ball sports – football, basketball, baseball, etc. – two teams often deadlock before a final outcome is decided.
In cross country, team ties generally are, well, not part of the landscape, especially when it’s at the state championship level.
For just the third time in PIAA history, two teams were dead even after the points for runners 1-5 were totaled. Instead of playing more, like in the aforementioned endeavors, officials brought into play one of the sometimes forgotten runners – the sixth man.
“We didn’t even talk about a tie,” said coach Mike Werner, whose North Penn boys team was tied atop the Class AAA standings with Cardinal O’Hara at 132 points. “You only talk about every point counts, and we knew districts was going to be tough and every point counts there.
“We train everyone so that we can have that depth, and going into states, districts and league, they don’t even know who our top five, top six and top seven are. They rotate out, and what’s great with that is it’s usually real tight. If it comes down to six, we’ll have that six.”
In his third season leading North Penn and 14th as a coach, Werner had never been involved in a meet where the sixth-man tiebreaker was needed to determine a victor. A national rule, ties in team scoring are decided by comparing the sixth-place finishers - the school with the best sixth finisher wins.
"We’ve talked about the tie scenario a lot because I’ve been with O’Hara since ’01 and we’ve had quite a number of ties in championship meets in various venues,” coach Tom Kennedy said. “It was a scenario we had discussed."
In 1941 – just the third year for a PIAA cross country championship – Mt. Lebanon and Altoona shared the boys Class AAA title with 50 points apiece. The share began a string of four consecutive years at the top for Mt. Lebanon.
The second and most recent time two teams finished with the same score was 1972. Bellevue and Annville-Cleona shared the Class AA boys title with an eerily familiar 132 points. The next two years, Annville-Cleona was alone at the top of the AA standings.
Sometime in the past 39 years, the national rule became cross country law in Pennsylvania, adopted by the PIAA as the method to break any team ties.
Wearing the favorite’s tag heading to Hershey, Cardinal O’Hara built a solid lead as four teams – O’Hara, North Penn, North Allegheny and Mt. Lebanon – separated themselves from the field through two layers of scoring. With just nine points from juniors Dan Savage and Mike Biolatta, the Lions seemed destined to hoist the champion’s trophy.
“As the race was developing, we weren’t getting our usual production out of 5, 6 and 7, so I figured we had some problems,” Kennedy said. “Our sixth guy walked into the meet injured, and our fifth guy (was) a freshman, God bless him. We would have never made it here without him or done any things we did this year without him, (but he) is a freshman at the state championships and then his back is jacked up in the middle of the race. They did everything they could do. I had no sense that it was close like that.”
A trio of underclassmen – sophomores Ryan Grace and Matt Molloy and junior Hunter Hill – turned the tide for North Penn, with Hill’s 17:36 clocking being 13 seconds faster than O’Hara’s sixth and tiebreaking runner.
“We were real fortunate today,” North Penn's Werner said. "I’m shocked, I’m pleased and against great competition … O’Hara is a great, great team. They beat us up at Briarwood (48-93), and we were very fortunate to run together at the right time and pull this out. We'll be preaching (the sixth-runner tiebreaker) all next year and years to follow."
Kennedy applauded the effort of the tied teams, pointing to the true team nature of the sport.
"North Penn did a great job, and our kids ran really well," the O'Hara coach said. "It's unfortunate that it had to come down that way. You’ve heard the saying that you are only as good as your fifth man. Well, it goes a little bit beyond that. You’re only as good as your seven guys.
"North Penn is the state champion today, and we’re second. It was rough, it was rough.”