The toughest Pennsylvania league in boys high school cross country has to be the Ches-Mont. Year in and year out, the two top programs in the league battle each other for supremacy - with both going on to do well at the District 1 Championships, and ultimately, the PIAA State Championships.
The top guys (minus Khattabi) after a recent 90-minute run in the rain.
In fact, one recent year a Ches-Mont team took it all the way, winning the Nike Team Nationals. Second in Ches-Mont, and second at states that year was West Chester Henderson. Of course, that Coatesville team was legendary. But that was 2006, and this is now. West Chester Henderson is talented. They are deep. They are well coached. And they are focused on being the best they can be - and taking care of business one meet at a time.
Now in his 8th year at the helm, Kevin Kelly does not like to show his cards early. But when you realize the sheer number of runners who have a chance to make the varsity this year, you get the sense he is holding a hand that will be hard to beat.
Sixteen of his top 17 from 2008 are back. Only a few of the top five runners are seniors. 2008 States 2nd place finisher Will Kellar, 2008 #2 man Stash Grab, and 2008 #5 man, Sam Zengel, who dropped his 800 split to 1:55 last spring.
Of the younger group vying for those varsity spots, one, in his first year of running, posted a 16:12 and was the #3 man at states (Junior Austin Steckler). One improved from 17:40 to 16:08 last year becoming the #4 man at States (Junior Bryan Andrews). Another first year runner came off wrestling to post a 4:54 on the track (Junior Tim Collins). One, also in his first year of running, went 4:46 and 10:16 in the spring (Junior Steve Jordan). Another matched Foot Locker finalist Chris Aldrich's District 1 freshman time of 16:34 and ran #7 at States (Sophomore Charlie Grab).
Also returning are Junior Aaron Feeley, #6 man at States - who Kelly says is having some good runs this summer. Also in the mix is Junior Alex Lott, who is showing he has the conditioning to contend for a spot.
What better doorstop for the Chester County Running Store?
As if that is not enough competition, team leader WIll Kellar (Below right) says look out for Achraf Khattabi. And Kelly agrees. But injuries have plagued Khattabi's cross country seasons. He's healthy now, but currently in the midst of Ramadan, which restricts his training regimen. Kellar says that before Achraf started Ramadan, he was rounding into incredible shape. What that conditioning translated to last spring was a 4:25 1600 and an 8:52 3000. Kelly plans to be conservative with this talented senior, holding him until some October meets.
Add it all up and you have at least 11 guys converging on seven varsity spots.
Kelly wants to have the seven set as soon as possible, but he also realizes that it could be too close to call until later in the season.
It's a good problem to have. And Kellar hopes it translates into keeping the top five as fresh as possible through the regular season until the meets that count - Districts and States.
Goal #1 for this team. Winning States.
Only Coatesville approaches Henderson's consistency at the state level since 1996. Coatesville has won it twice, and has eight top seven finishes. Henderson has won it four times, and has nine top seven finishes over that span.
The team handles goal-setting in a unique way. Yes, Coach Kelly talks about long-term goals, mentioning both the PIAA State Championships, and maybe taking a shot at Nike Cross Nationals. But neither Kelly or the team likes to get too far ahead of themselves. "In 2007 we looked past Districts and didn't even make states," relates Kellar. "Right now we just run. You never know what's going to happen."
But before each meet, the team gathers for some pasta and bonding. Most of the team says an important part of those gatherings is the goal-setting. But just for the meet next on the calendar. Zengel says they pass out index cards, and each person writes down their individual and team goals for the meet. Then the cards are collected and redistributed to all. Each athlete then reads the goals for another person. "By sharing your goal with others it
is easier to do it," says Zelgel... "because other people know what you're going for, and will ask if you've accomplished it."
Every member of the top group is also in agreement on another aspect of their success. "Coach Kelly runs with us almost every practice," says the younger Grab. Older brother Stash concurs. "He won't let you drop on a run. It teaches you to run through the hard part of races."
From wresting to arm-twisting, this team comes from many places.
Stash Grab is a wrestler in the winter. It gives him a mental break between cross and track. But it also gives him access to a lot of potential runners. And he is apparently relentless in his recruiting. Collins is a wrester. And, according to Kelly, so are seven or eight others; four new this season.
Others have come from more traditional sources. The Grab brothers from St. Agnes CYO. Lott ran CYO, as well. Andrews had always wanted to try running and got started in 8th grade. Zengel had Coach Kelly for gym in 9th grade and finally relented after the XC team kept asking him to join. Collins got tired of soccer. And Kellar was a soccer player as well, having participated in the sport from the time he was in 2nd grade. He also did some swimming. But when he realized he might not be good enough to make the high school soccer team, he gave cross country a shot. With the level of talent on the team, he called his freshman experience a wake-up call.
But the most circuitous, serendipitous route to running had to be the one swum, walked and run by Steve Jordan. He had never played any sports. His sister was a good runner, so his father tried to get him to give it a shot. During his freshman year, his mother even talked to Coach Kelly and got the sign-up papers. "I didn't want any part of it, and the papers just sat in my room," Jordan says. His freshman year went by, summer arrived, and Jordan found himself at a public pool in a rain storm. Doing what any teenager would, he called his mother to get a ride. "She was at work, and couldn't get me." His choices were few, and he chose to walk home. "I walked about ten feet, then started running," Jordan continued. "I ran home in the rain, and halfway home, decided I wanted to do cross country." That next week, he joined the 6:30 a.m. running crew known as Henderson XC.
Deep. But experienced at the top.
It's a deep team. But the top returning runner has to be Kellar. He has made States all three years of high school. As a freshman, he qualified with the team that would finish 2nd to Coatesville - finishing 6th on the team in 17:00. In 2007, he qualified with eventual runner-up Aldrich, and finished 17th in 16:29. Last year, Henderson again qualified as a team, and Kellar gave the team a second consecutive individual runner-up finish, going 16:18, eight seconds behind champion Jimmy Tarsnane of Perkiomen Valley on the newly designed course. The team was 7th.
Kellar's performance surprised him a bit. He got out well, and at about a mile found himself in the top 25. He was keeping his eyes on "all the big guys, Tarsnane, Ben Furcht, Neal Berman, Brad Miles, and Vince Perozze." He knew Tarsnane was gone. "It was his day." But he sensed that Tarsnane's pace had tired the others, and at two miles was solidly in the top ten. "With 400 to go and the hill there, I got an adrenaline rush and passed everyone except Tarsnane." Kellar credits Chris Ferry for recruiting him to the team. "He's still an inspiration to me." And Aldrich for "putting the pressure on the team and showing what was possible."
Kellar deflects the expectations for both team and personal performance. He likes the teams chances, though. "There is strength in numbers. But we want to be underdogs. There are good teams, like Perk Valley, North Penn and LaSalle."
Individually, he's reluctant to visualize himself atop the podium in first. "It scares me as the top returning guy. I don't consider myself one of the top in the state. I have a lot to improve before I can think about that."
You can watch their season unfold at XXXX on September 12th, at Manhattan Invitational, Ches-Mont and Districts in October, and, if the plan comes together, at States on November 7th.
From there, who knows? But you won't find one person on this team looking that far ahead. It's running - one foot in front of the other is all you can worry about. This season though, those feet should be traveling faster than anyone else in PA.