Coming Of Age In Pittsburgh, And Finishing 1-2 At Nationals

* Butler's Drew Griffith (left to right) and Ringgold's (PA) Ryan Pajak help each other after a hard fought PIAA 3,200m race

Photo Credit: Phil Grove

by Oliver Hinson - PA MileSplit Contributor

- - -

It's a chilly spring day in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania. Butler High School freshman Drew Griffith charges down the home stretch with a lap to go in the 3,200 meter run at the TSTCA Outdoor Championships. The clock reads just over nine minutes.

Just behind him is another freshman, Ringgold's Ryan Pajak.

The crowd lets out a gargantuan cheer for Pajak, who is about to pass Griffith.

Only a few hollers of "Drew!" emerge.

Of course, though, there is a key fact missing: Pajak was not just passing Griffith, but he was about to lap him.

Pajak finished second in this race with a time of 9:23.65, while Griffith finished 13th in 10:33.76.

At this point, the two runners had never met. Pajak was attempting to solidify himself as one of the top young runners in Western Pennsylvania. Griffith, meanwhile, was trying to put together a solid outdoor season, especially after a winter riddled with injuries.

Fast forward to December, two and a half years later. 

Griffith charges down the home stretch with Pajak right behind him ... but everything about this race is completely different.

They're about to go 1-2 at Foot Locker Nationals, a stunning display of dominance that will make headlines for a number of reasons.

For one, the Pennsylvanians had broken a five-year winning streak by Midwest individuals. Secondly,  both of them were University of Notre Dame signings.

But third, and perhaps most important, was that they had put Pennsylvania on the map. And so for for Drew Griffith and Ryan Pajak, that Saturday in December represented something more:

They both knew that racing, and winning, meant something totally different than it once did.

For a moment, let's appreciate how we got here.

It's an understatement to say that these two had vastly different career trajectories.

For Pajak, excellence was an expectation from the moment he entered high school. His older brother Lucas, who now runs at (DII) Indiana University of Pennsylvania, was also a talented runner, qualifying for the PIAA State XC Championships in three of his four years at Ringgold. 

"There was an indication [that he was talented], obviously," Ringgold head cross country coach Jennifer McMichael said. "I know middle school is a different realm, but with some of the times he was posting, I thought he had something special."

When Ryan arrived at Ringgold High School, he made an immediate splash. McMichael says his performance at the Red, White and Blue Classic -- the largest meet of the year in the Pittsburgh region -- was one of the first indications that he could be an elite athlete.

"I think [that meet] was an indicator," McMichael said. "He ran in the low 16 (minutes) as a freshman. Right then and there, I knew there was something."

* Pajak won his debut at the Red, White and Blue Classic

Photo Credit: Phil Grove

- - - 

Griffith also ran in that meet, but his time of 21:10 was less inspiring.

Like Pajak, Griffith threw down some decent marks in middle school, but at that point in time, he simply hadn't matured yet. 

His race at Red, White, and Blue was one of the only performances of his freshman cross country campaign, and he continued to face injuries in the following months.

Still, there were signs. 

On a freezing and windy day in March of 2021, CJ Singleton, then a high school junior at Butler, walked on to a snow-dusted track with his training partner, Sage Vavro, and Griffith.

"It was an early Saturday morning practice, before mandatory practices began," Singleton said. "I was surprised to see him there -- no one else showed up."

While Singleton and Vavro hit their mile repeats well under five minutes, Griffith stuck it out in the cold and he hit some marks that were impressive. 

"[That workout] was pretty impressive," Singleton said. "He was ripping 5:20, 5:30 miles by himself and this was just after coming off an injury. He hadn't run more than a few miles in months. And the fact that he showed up for this meant he was going to show up for anything."

As 2021 marched on, Griffith picked up steam.

At Butler's first invitational the following cross country season, he clocked a time of 16:46 on a challenging Roadman Park course at California University of Pennsvylania, finishing third overall.

For a sophomore with PRs of 10:33 and 21:10, this race was a game-changer. 

"I think [that race] was when I noticed him," Pajak said. "I saw he finished third, and I thought, 'Man, CJ has a fast teammate.'"

That fall, Griffith finished right behind Singleton at the PIAA State XC Championships to give Butler a 1-2 finish.

* Singleton and Griffith embrace after a 1-2 finish at states in 2021

Photo Credit: Bill Shearn

- - - 

"Coming across the line, I was super ecstatic that I had just pulled this off," Griffith said. "I had just gotten second when a lot of the people in that race probably didn't even know who I was."

In fact, the only one getting much national attention at this point was Singleton.

In the fall of 2021, he committed to Notre Dame, one of the most dominant programs in the country. 

"It made sense as soon as I got the call from the coach," Singleton said, calling Notre Dame his 'dream school' from a young age. 

It was around this time, too, when Singleton realized that more attention meant more responsibility. In February of 2022, his mile race against Gary Martin at the Pennsyvlania Indoor State Championships garnered attention because it was framed as a duel between Western and Eastern Pennsylvania.

For Singleton, the race was about more than proving himself; it was about proving the excellence of Pittsburgh runners.

When the day came, though, Martin had another gear, beating Singleton by two seconds. Martin crossed the line in 4:04, while Singleton was second in 4:06.

"[Western Pennsylvania] has been consistently underrated for distance running," Singleton said. "Knowing that you're out there representing your city, it gives you a greater purpose."

When Singleton graduated that spring, the same purpose fell upon Griffith and Pajak.

They didn't necessarily take the same path as Singleton, however. 

Instead, they took things to an entirely new level. In the fall of 2022, they rewrote the cross country record books almost everywhere they went.

Pajak beat Singleton's White Oak Park course record by nearly 30 seconds at the Red, White, and Blue Classic, while Griffith ran 15:17 at the PIAA District 7 XC Championships, breaking his own week-old Roadman Park course record by another 15 seconds.

Then, as Griffith and Pajak ascended, the sport grew with them across the state.

When Griffith won the Champs Sports Northeast Regional that November, four other Pennsylvanians joined him in the top 10 -- and ultimately earned tickets to nationals. 

* Watch the 2022 Foot Locker Northeast Region Championship

- - - 

"I remember thinking, 'Man, we have half of the Northeast region," Griffith said. "[We showed that] there's a lot of talent here."

The success of Pennsylvania made waves across the region.

When Griffith finished eighth at the national meet and Pajak took 12th, they received a lot of notoriety for their performances.

Praise rained down on them for putting their communities on the map.

"There's a lot of talent in [Pittsburgh]," Griffith said, "and there's a ton of talent in the state of Pennsylvania, and sometimes I think it goes unseen, but we put some notice as to what this state can do."

During the following winter and spring, the trend continued; Griffith and Pajak set fire to the track, and everyone else followed in their example.

Griffith clocked an 8:48 for two miles at New Balance Indoor Nationals; it was the third-fastest time by a junior ever.

Pajak, meanwhile, ran a 4:09 mile time at New Balance Outdoor Nationals, which was good for 10th in the nation. From there, 17 Pennsylvanians broke 4:15 in the 1,600m.

Two years prior, that number was just nine.

    * Drew Griffith at New Balance Nationals Outdoor

    Photo Credit: Ryan Comstock/MileSplit

    - - - 

    Suddenly, Pennsylvania had a rising reputation for producing tough and talented athletes, which resulted in some concrete effects.

    In April 2023, Griffith followed in his Singleton's footsteps, committing to Notre Dame. 

    For most people, it was impossible to imagine that the decision didn't have a lot to do with Singleton. For his part, Singleton believes he didn't have too much influence, but he says that his own commitment likely helped Griffith to see what was possible.

    "At this point, any school in the country would be throwing money at him," Singleton says. "I like to think I got Notre Dame in the door early for him. The day after I committed, I heard him say, 'I want to go to Notre Dame.'"

    The presence of two Pennsylvania runners and two native Pittsburghians in the same elite distance program was exciting enough.

    But then Pajak committed in September, making it three. 

    Two weeks later, Colin Whitaker, a talented runner from Lancaster, followed suit. 

    In October, Hempfield Area's Peyton Murray, one of the best high school throwers in the nation, also committed to Notre Dame.

    It might have been a coincidence -- or a chain reaction -- but the truth was out there: Wearing gold and blue was the cool new thing to do in the Keystone State. 

    Related Links: 

    Three top NCAA programs and their distance/XC commits

    Notre Dame head coach Chris Neal said Singleton's commitment may have been the jumping off point. 

    "I think the coaches have done such a good job developing their kids over there," Neal says of Western Pennsylvania runners. "It's a state that has produced great athletes year in and year out. I think Pennsylvania will always be a state that we take a hard look at."

    Griffith and Pajak say the Pennsylvania-to-Notre Dame pipeline is meaningful in various ways. Aside from the merits of the school itself, they mentioned team success and culture as the main reasons for their respective commitments. 

    They also saw a clear line of progress for young runners entering the program. 

    "It's a powerhouse of a school," Griffith says, "and a lot of us committing has really opened up the doors for the coaches there to recruit out of Pennsylvania."

    More importantly, the bar they've set could make a difference for other runners from the Pittsburgh region. 

    "It's talented guys like us that encourage people to run faster and faster, to chase our records and try to break them," Pajak said. "It creates a cycle." 

    By the time September rolled around, both Griffith and Pajak knew that they were running for their supporters in Pittsburgh, and for their future at Notre Dame.

    They delivered.

    Griffith threw down a 5K time of 14:21 at the XC Invitational, which was the 16th-fastest time ever by a high schooler, while Pajak ran a blistering 14:40 at the Mingo Classic in Pittsburgh. 

    They went undefeated their entire seasons until going head-to-head at the Foot Locker Northeast Regional and Foot Locker Nationals.

    Pajak won the first race, but Griffith won the rematch.

    Meanwhile, Pennsylvania took command of the Northeast, as Colin Whitaker and Jack Bertram gave Pennsylvania four national qualifiers. In Portland, the North Allegheny girls took their second consecutive trip to NXN and finished fifth, the highest finish for a PA team since 2015. 

    By this point, everyone knows how Foot Locker Nationals went.

    Griffith and Pajak, the two friends from Pittsburgh and future teammates, went 1-2, giving them picture-perfect endings to their storied high school cross country careers. 

    "To put Pennsylvania on the map like that," McMichael says, "I think any coach will say this, but it's a dream come true. It just goes to show what Pennsylvania running is. It's not just Drew and Ryan; we've got incredible athletes from all schools here."

    Both runners agreed. 

    Even holding a giant trophy shaped like the Balboa Park course didn't quite compare to what they accomplished on a larger level.

    If that seems hard to believe, well, take it from Pajak.

    His loss to Griffith was the only blot on his record. Still, when asked his finish, he had this to say:

    "I wouldn't have it any other way."