Meet Feature by Phil Grove:
NASCAR starts out each season with its biggest event. Saturday at Schenley Park in Pittsburgh, cross country in western Pennsylvania put its crown jewel on display with the Red, White & Blue Classic.
And what a classic it was. Fox Chapel Area’s Colin Martin and Mt. Lebanon’s Kelsey Potts turned heads with their victories, while North Allegheny’s boys wowed with their 20-second spread and the Mt. Lebanon girls finally got the best of West Virginia’s best.
Tigers String Five in a Row to Flatten Boys’ Field
Tight packs are nothing new to strong teams and standout programs, and North Allegheny has had its share of miniscule spreads between its scoring runners. In 2012, the Tigers had just 17 seconds between their top five and 1:06 between runners Nos. 1 and 7 at Red, White & Blue.
On Saturday, they took it to another level in dominating a 500-finisher field. John Neff’s squad put its scoring five in a row as North Allegheny’s black and gold uniforms ruled the front of the field in defending their overall team title with just 30 points. Runner-up Mt. Lebanon was a distant second at 155, while Fox Chapel Area grabbed third at 193.
“I think the guys ran really well today,” Neff said. “They showed up. They wanted to prove to themselves that this is going to be another good season, and I think they did.
“I have to take my hat off to them. They’re tough. Right now they’re racing well above their training, so I’m really pleased.”
In claiming their seventh team title in the meet’s 10-year history, North Allegheny did something it had not done before – drop below 50 points. In leveling its previous best of 56 from 2008, the Tigers did it with a row of runners.
Junior Matt McGoey led the Tigers in fourth at 15:45, and he was followed right behind by senior Cordon Louco (15:49) and juniors Seamus Love (15:57), Scott Seel (15:58) and Hunter Wharrey (16:05). Senior Nicholas McClure was 11th overall in 16:16, and junior Peter Savchik was 16th in 16:27.
Although its title defense was never threatened, North Allegheny didn’t carry the blanket finish for the entire 5,000 meters.
As the field started its climb toward the final flat and fast loop, Tiger runners were Nos. 4, 5, 6, 8, 12, 13 and 21. As their coach later said, they knew they still had work to do.
“More than anything else I think that this race shows you you’ve got to be tough at the end,” Neff said. “The finish here is nothing like Hershey, but I don’t care what race it is, what course it is, you still have to be tough at the end, and you’ve got to pass people and you have to hold your place.
“This is a good one at the beginning (of the season) to practice that. I told the guys nobody passes you when you get up on this oval, and everybody better pass somebody, and I think that happened.”
Mt. Lebanon Puts End to Morgantown’s Reign
To keep the team championship from crossing state lines for another year, the Mt. Lebanon girls knew what they needed to do and who they needed to beat. Their game plan made it abundantly clear.
“When we lined up, Morgantown was right next to us,” Mt. Lebanon coach Ron Schreiner said of the two-time defending champion Mohigans. “Our girls took a good look at that uniform, and we had talked about it. I guarantee you it came up this week.”
Led by overall champion Potts, the Blue Devils ended Morgantown’s out-of-state reign by placing three in the top 10 and finishing with 92 points. The Mohigans were second with 119, while North Allegheny placed third at 192.
“It was great for us,” Schreiner said of the team victory. “We talked about Morgantown this week, and we knew they were going to be here along with North Allegheny and so many outstanding individual runners as well. We had a great summer. We had a quiet confidence coming in here, but we were very focused.”
Senior Jillian Hunsberger was fifth in 18:13, and classmate Audrey Gordon placed ninth in 18:59. Add in sophomore Claire Dougherty (39th, 19:50) and senior Callie Gunzenhauser (40th, 19:51), and the Blue Devils were solid winners.
“They’re a great team, we knew that coming in here,” Morgantown coach Mike Ryan said of the 2013 champions. “Their top three we saw them in track, they had great track seasons. It was going to be a tough race for us.
“We needed to run as a group. Unfortunately, we had some sicknesses, and it hasn’t been the easiest start this year for us as a team. Hats off to them, a 27-point victory over us, they had a great race as a group.”
The Mt. Lebanon coach said Potts crossing the line first was the key to his team’s victory.
“Kelsey’s the core,” he said. “If Kelsey is out there and up where she should be, they feed off that. They see her. We’re about 12 deep, and I wish they scored with 10 instead of five.”
Colin Martin Breaks Out of Trio for Special Win
Along with his twin brother Ethan and Kiski Area senior Brent Kennedy, Fox Chapel’s Colin Martin spent a lot of time in or near the lead of countless races during the 2013 track season. More often than not, the end result was a fast time and high finish but not being first to the line.
That all changed in a big way Saturday as Colin Martin ran one of the fastest times on the 3.1-mile course in leaving his talented competitors to fight it out for second.
“I put on one surge with the guys (about a mile in) that they weren’t exactly able to respond to as quickly as I thought they would,” Colin said of the move that broke up the elite group. “Brent loves to put on surges. I know that’s his strategy so trying to respond to his and putting on a few of my own was the key to winning today.”
The eventual winner was able to maintain the top spot all the way to the finish ribbon, which he broke in 15:18 to Kennedy’s 15:25 and Ethan Martin’s 15:35. Colin Martin’s performance is the fourth fastest on the Schenley Park layout, with the 15:13 by Lucas Zarzeczny of Avonworth in 2006 being No. 1.
“During track, Ethan had my number most of the time,” Kennedy said of the friendly competition with the Martins. “I’ve got to be honest, I was waiting for Ethan to go after it.
“Colin was just too good (today). I don’t even think me and Ethan had a bad day. I ran a personal best on the course.”
As they made the final climb toward the Schenley Oval and the finish line, Colin Martin turned to take a quick look at his pursuers. What he saw was a 30-meter gap that was never seriously threatened.
“I took about three,” the winner said of his glances back at the field. “I’m told never to do that, absolutely never, but I was very nervous. This is the second time I’ve beaten Brent and the first time I’ve ever beaten Ethan, and being in front of them scares me.
“I think, ‘Oh man, am I doing something wrong? Am I going out too hard or something? I think breaking down that mental barrier, saying hey I’m strong enough I can do this, and to push through it is what led to the win today so I’m happy with it.”
With the season only two weekends old, Colin Martin expects the rivalry between western Pennsylvania’s top three boys will continue to grow.
“I think it’s fuel in the fire for both Brent and Ethan,” Colin said of his victory. “I think that’s going to lead to some more great competition later this year so I’m excited.”
Mt. Lebanon Sophomore Seizes Opportunity
With defending champion and state 1,600-meter titlist Brianna Schwartz of Shaler Area sitting out the race, the door was wide open for a runner looking to make a name for herself. And Mt. Lebanon’s Potts took full advantage of the opportunity.
“It jumped out at us,” Mt. Lebanon coach Ron Schreiner said of Potts running 17:47 and breaking Schwartz’s 18:07 record from 2012. “We have two seniors that train hard with her, Jillian Hunsberger and Audrey Gordon. I think it really has helped Kelsey as a sophomore in practice. Last year Kelsey was all brand new (and) really didn’t know how to spend her energy where on the course.
“She gets pushed hard in practice, and those two girls have made Kelsey better. They’re seniors, and there’s not a drop of jealousy in their blood. They love her, they just want her to have a great year because if Kelsey’s right, we’re right. We’re going to be right there.”
With just over 1,000 meters left, Potts was in front but followed closely by Vincentian Academy’s Marianne Abdalah, North Allegheny’s Madeleine Davison, West Allegheny’s Alexis O’Shea, teammate Hunsberger and North Hills senior Mary Malone in a single-file line. Potts then made what proved to be the deciding move.
“I tried to surge mostly as we were coming up the hill, and then I kept that and then I sprinted the straightaway,” she said.
Abdalah, a freshman, was second in 17:49, with Davison third in 17:55 and O’Shea next at 18:05 as four ran better than the old course record.
“She was just pushing me to go so hard because she beat me in a scrimmage two weeks ago,” Potts said of her closest challenger. “I knew I would be able to beat her, but I just had to push very hard.”
The record time came as a surprise to Potts.
“Yeah, I was planning on getting 18 flat or 18:05,” she said.