FL NE: Ziemian, Kovach, Zarger and Cygan tell their Foot Locker Northeast stories...

Even in the one bright spots for Pennsylvania runners at this year's Foot Locker Northeast Regional there was some disappointment, as Lower Merion teammates Ben Furcht and Neal Berman finished 10th and 11th – which means Ben goes and Neal stays home.

(Read their story in "Nothing can come between these friends – not even their bittersweet finishes at Foot Locker NE")


There had been high expectations – with good reason – among many other PA harriers who had made the Foot Locker Northeast Regional one of the targets on their fall calendars. But reality does not always meet expectation.

We made attempts to talk with a few individuals about their races. Here are the ones who took the time to discuss a very difficult day. (Remember, there's always another race...")

Sophia Ziemian, SR, Lewisburg, 29th 18:58.7

Ziemian, the 2008 PIAA AA Champion in cross country, and the course record-holder on the new, tougher Hershey course with her 18:46 at the pre-states meet in September (18:52 at States); was hoping for a top 25 finish at Foot Locker. And if she raced her best race ever, she definitely could see herself in the top 10. She would finish 29th in 18:58.7. "I had been hoping for a better time."

Ziemian shares an impression of the timing of the race and the course itself with a lot of people. With the Pennsylvania season ending the first Saturday of November, the ensuing four weeks is a long time to continue training at a high level. She immediately went into her pre-season workouts, which are by design, the most difficult.

But she sees a need for those with so much time between big events to have a race. "I just wasn't sharp. I needed a race and it's really hard to simulate that."

Ziemian found the start pretty quick, but by the mile, felt the pace had settled into something more manageable.

She hung in there, and hoped to use the back woods to pass people. "But this course is so different than anything I race. I started to pass people, but with so many ups and immediate downs, they would repass. I just could not move up."

Overall, Ziemian was very pleased with her season and the experience with her team. "If one race did not go has I had hoped, this (Foot Locker) was a good one to have an off day. The stuff I care about was with my team."

Ziemian will look to run indoor for the first time in her high school career, where the Dragons are looking to replace 2007 graduate Casey Miller in the 4x800.

Leslie Kovach, SR, Norwin, 22nd 18:48.2

Kovach definitely had more in mind than 3rd Team all-Northeast when she went to Foot Locker Northeast. After all, she had finished 2nd in AAA at the state meet over a very tough course; one of just three girls to run under 19 on the new, more difficult course, going 18:59.

As with Ziemian, Kovach agrees that experience can be an important teacher on the Van Cortlandt layout. In addition to the early speed of the race, she says the railroad ties – hidden by other runners – are hard to see. She also says the effects of the quick ups and downs in the 2nd mile can be mitigated as rhythm-breakers with more experience on the course.

30th as she passed the mile in a "not surprising" 5:30, she worked to pass people in the woods, but found she was cut off more than once.

"I was kinda surprised as well as I did for my first time on the course," she says. "I am pretty happy with that place and time. I actually like the course."

Kovach, who is looking at a few Ivy League schools, among others, says her main motivation for running Foot Locker was to get experience on the course before college.

Van Cortlandt hosts quite a few collegiate invitationals, including the Ivy League champs knows as the Heps.

Smart girl.

Two of Pennsylvania's best had the misfortunate to get hit with things that in one instance, kept them from running anywhere close to their best; and in the other, kept them completely out of the race.

Lauren Zarger, SR, Harbor Creek, 78th 20:24.7 
Zarger had very high hopes for her 2008 cross country season. And when she finished 2nd to Sophia Ziemian at the pre-states meet in September at Hershey in 19:09, she had every reason to believe that she was on a great path. But that was the last race this season where she felt 100%.

Late that month, she started to complain about the early onset of fatigue and even some cramping during her races. She continued to win, though, so there seemed to be little urgency. But with her state meet race (a 5th place 19:20 that was slower than her September race) ended with her collapse after the toughest last mile in her high school career, she was finally tested for iron levels. Diagnosed with iron depletion, Zarger had a reason for the fatigue. More importantly, a correctable reason.

Jess Cygan, SO, Liberty, Did Not Compete
Just before the state meet, eventual AAA champion Jess Cygan started to experience some shin pain.

It was in the opposite leg than the one that had interrupted her spring season with shin splints.

She decided to tough it out.

But two weeks into training for Foot Locker – the race Cygan had been aiming for all season – the pain became almost unbearable. Over the next week, she came to the conclusion, mostly on her own, to shut down her season. It wasn't an easy decision for such a tough competitor. Especially after her state championship time of 18:47 demonstrated that she was in shape to do some special things. She also was one of the top returning runners, having finished 13th as a freshman.

Cygan will take her time coming back. But after her second experience; and subsequent disappointment after an encounter with shin splints; she says she has "learned to be diligent with prevention, like icing regularly after runs, even though there is no pain."

Instead of avoiding the race all together, Cygan accompanied teammate and friend Amy Darlington to Van Cortlandt to support her in her first race on the course. Darlington finished 80th in the seeded race.

"I still have two more years," Cygan said.

Who doubts that 2009 will be an entirely different story?


The Final k: Features stories from the 2008 PA Cross Country season by PennTrackXC