Five On The Line: The Story Of St. Joe's Unusual State Title

Working without a safety net is a definite no-no if you're walking a tightrope or flying on a trapeze.

While not risking life and limb, entering a cross country team into any meet without 6th and/or 7th runners is never an advisable strategy.

Jayson Jackson and his Saint Joseph's Catholic Academy squad didn't have a choice in Saturday's opening PIAA final in Hershey. As it turns out, the Wolves didn't need the team insurance policy that almost always is used.

St. Joseph's placed third in Class A at the PIAA District 6 Championships, a deep district that includes Marion Center Area and 2019 breakthrough Westmont Hilltop. The Hilltoppers won the district with 51 points, while Marion Center took second with 52, booking the two spots to states allotted to the district and classification.

Qualifying as five individuals but scoring as a team per PIAA rules, the Boalsburg-based team went from a novelty to the talk of Chocolatetown, winning the Class A title with 93 points to District 6 rival and defending state champion Marion Center's 116.

"We have the toughest district in the state," Jackson said. "If you look at the last five or six years, the worst finish someone from our district has had (at state) is like fourth. Going into the (District 6) meet, I realized us and Marion Center both had the opportunity to qualify five girls if we weren't in the top two.

"So that gave us a little bit more breathing room. (I) figured if we got to states and executed like we executed at districts, we'd have a shot. And that's all we really wanted was just the opportunity."

And the Wolves did not waste any time in capitalizing on the opportunity to make their presence known with just a scoring team of senior Myah Chappell, juniors Kathleen Simander and Camryn Eby, sophomore Kate Youngmark and freshman Brandi Carmack. Saint Joseph's topped the team standings at each mile checkpoint, joining Class A boys winner Winchester Thurston as the only squads to lead from wire to wire in this year's PIAA finale.

"That's what we told the girls last week - everyone had to stay upright," Jackson said of his team's strategy in the Class A race. "They have been doing a great job running for each other, and I think that just really paid off. (They) just didn't have really many bad days all season and just kind of expected to have the same thing today."

A "family culture" has helped the fledging program develop into a perennial power.

"We just wanted to run for each other as a team," Eby said. "Whatever the best for today was, we were going to be happy with that because we knew we would put in our all no matter what for each other. To be able to walk away with a state title is pretty amazing."

"We do a run called the 'Wolf Run,' so we went out trying to race it just like we do in practice, trying to run for each other" Chappell said. "We made sure that's what was on our mind, not so much the race, but running as a family."

That culture has also allowed the Wolves to be one of the state's most consistently great program's over the last five-plus years.

Saturday's championship is not the first for Saint Joseph's, which opened its doors in 2011 with Jackson as its XC coach. This year's attention-grabbing performance at Hershey also is nothing new for the Wolves.

In 2015, Saint Joseph's claimed the Class A title by just 7 points, finishing with 90 points and placing two runners in the top 9 overall. The following year, the Wolves won a tiebreaker over Elk Lake as both teams were deadlocked at 103.

Saint Joseph's also was second to Fairview in 2017 by just three points as the top 3 teams were separated by only 9 markers. And a year ago, the Wolves were third with four seniors and the No. 1 team stick.

With Youngmark leading the way on Saturday with a medal-winning 10th overall and 4th in the team race, the Wolves are primed for another run at the podium in less than a year. Three-fourths of their 2-5 pack separated by only 16.9 seconds and 13 overall places still have at least another year remaining.