When Homer City head coach Michael Gentile first saw Angel Piccirillo run, he was impressed. It was seven years ago, and it wasn't on a track in a youth meet – it was in the hallway of the Homer Center Elementary School, where Gentile is a teacher.
Usually, running isn't allowed in a school's hallways. But this was different. Gentile knew a natural when he saw one. So he yelled for her to stop. She did, and Gentile says she looked a little scared. That is until he yelled - "do that again."
To this day, he tells the story all the time, especially to Angel. And now – on the cusp of the biggest race of her very young career as a miler heading to the Penn Relays Carnival Invitational Mile as the girls' top seed – he still can't believe what he is seeing.
Now a sophomore in the Homer Center HS in Homer City, Angel doesn't remember that day in third grade. "It probably left my head that day," she says.
But she does remember her coach telling she and now fellow soph Breanna Rossi when both were on the 8th grade track team that they could be good some day. "We were goofballs then," Angel shares. "We'd just laugh and say, 'yeah'."
Gentile would have to wait an entire year after that 8th grade season before he could begin to show Angel and Breanna that he wasn't kidding. He wanted Angel to try cross country, but it just wasn't to be.
A volleyball player in the fall during 7th and 8th grades, Piccirillo continued with the sport entering her freshman year. "I was good, but not crazy good."
Photos by Don Rich, Timothy O'Dowd, Megan Clugh and Bob Piccirillo
Gentile, now in his 6th season as head coach, was ready when outdoor began. And what he had made him happy. "We aren't a big school, so we can't just throw together a great 4x800 every year. But last year was different. Using senior Alyssa Taddie, plus then sophomore Megan Gaydosh and then-freshmen Breanna Rossi and Piccirillo, the relay dropped time all season, beginning with a 10:12.97 in March, and finishing with their AA 5th place 9:35.46 at the PIAA State Champs.
Angel says that it was the experience of standing on the podium with her teammates that day at Shippensburg University after running a PR split of 2:17 that "sealed the deal" for her as a runner.
Piccirillo made the decision to turn from volleyball to cross country.
Gentile says that in addition to the state medal, it was the friendship and guidance from 2009 teammate Taddie that really helped Piccirillo develop a love of running so quickly.
So during the summer, rising Indiana University of Pennsylvania freshman Taddie had company on her training runs. "Angel just did what Alyssa did during the season and during the summer" says Gentile. "And Alyssa was doing all the right things."
For cross country, Gentile says he kept Piccirillo mostly in the 30-35 miles per week range, reaching a max in the 40's for just two weeks. "We didn't know how she'd take to distance," says Gentile. "For her, five miles is long, so we break the true distance down into smaller runs. We sometimes start with a five mile run at tempo pace (under 7 minute pace), and then finish with 200's and 300's. She really likes those."
Or they'll start with 400's and then go off into the five miles. "We focus on quality," he says.
But it just wasn't the 4x800 success and a friendship that fueled Piccirillo to choose cross country over volleyball last fall. It was a bit of failure, as well. According to her coach, it was a bad race in the 400 at last year's Shippensburg Invitational that made her a better student of race strategy. "Coming off the track you could see the look in her eye" says Gentile. "She is a fighter, a competitor, and you could tell that won't happen again."
Coming into the cross country season, neither Gentile or Piccirillo knew what to expect.
She won some smaller races in her part of the state, including the "B" race at the Pittsburgh Central Catholic Invitational. But there was no indication of what kind of potential she really had. Gentile had seen enough, though, to make sure she was prepared for the District 6 AA race against a very good runner in then Forest Hills sophomore Leah Anne Wirfel.
"That race was my first real one," Piccirillo states matter-of-factly. "I didn't see Wirfel or Central Cambria all season."
She says Gentile told her that Wirfel goes out fast and not to get pulled into that strategy.
But Angel noticed something during that race that stuck with her. "She went out and got a little distance on me, but that distance then stayed the same the whole race."
For her first real competitive race in cross, Piccirillo was happy.
Angel's 2nd competitive race was coming up soon, so her coach took her to Hershey to jog the course before the PIAA State Championships. "He wanted to show me that the hills were not as bad as they looked" she said underneath a chuckle.
As for strategy, the only runner she knew was Wirfel. And since she and her coach knew that Wirfel would be going out fast, the idea was to stay with her.
If Piccirillo is anything, she is coachable. So when ELCO's Kayleigh Perry and Northwestern Lehigh's Lindsay Kerr (the eventual champ) made their moves, Angel stayed with Wirfel.
"I got burned," says Piccirillo. "Not knowing when to go, I'm sort of learning now. It's a process, but all this is so new to me."
At that point, neither Gentile or Piccirillo knew just how many more new things would be coming their way.
Gentile knew that Angel ultimately would be an 800 meter runner and miler, but he had made the conscious decision that he would just train her for the 400 her freshman year, and when the 4x800 showed signs of quality, add the two lapper.
So his grand plan was to let her become the miler he knew she was when she reached college.
Needless to say, Gentile has pretty much scrapped every plan he had for her, simply because she keeps succeeding at everything she tries.
Mother Nature would force his hand in January.
Ironically, this past winter Angel and her teammates got to run in the halls at school as part of their training. The snow was that bad.
Any real speed work was out the window.
Gentile decided to make a change with his young charge. He decided to enter her in the 1600 at one of the Slippery Rock University High School indoor invitationals.
Piccirillo admittedly is a thinker, and someone who gets nervous before races. She's fine when she steps to the line, but she says that if her coach had told her more than 24 hours before her first 1600 meter run, that she would have "melted down."
He didn't tell her. She didn't melt. And coach and athlete just focused on the competition.
Defending outdoor state AA 1600 meter champ Kelsey Seymour of Central Cambria was in the race. So he told Angel just to sit on her and see what happened. Seymour set the early pace, but when she started to slow a bit, Piccirillo knew exactly what to do. She passed, and she won. The time was 5:16.0, and because her former teammate Taddie had run a PR of 5:10 in high school, she knew it was good.
"I have never seen anything like it," says her coach, still obviously astonished at what he was witnessed that night.
"When she did run that time, I said, 'OK, we better keep doing that'. So much for waiting for college."
The time qualified her for the state indoor championships. But with only one 1600 on her resume, Gentile started looking for more races for her to gain experience.
Her first opportunity came on February 20th at the GaREAT Center in a TSTCA meet where she had a whopping PR, running 5:06.93 for the full mile. A week later she was back at the same track, winning her first TSTCA Championship – again running alone – with a 5:07.70 mile.
Not to be surprised again, Gentile told Angel that she could win the PTFCA mile, even with runners of the caliber of Pennsbury freshman Sara Sargent and State College junior Chloe Schmidt, among others.
As for Piccirillo, she was well aware of the 'big fuss' that was being made over Sargent and Schmidt. "There were lots of big names, but I knew I had a chance."
Gentile told her to just follow Sargent, and if someone made a move, to jump on it and then move.
As the race progressed, Piccirillo and Schmidt followed Sargent. "When Chloe made her move, cross country (when she let a move go unanswered) kicked in, and once I was right behind Chloe, I wasn't thinking winning. I just wanted to keep up."
Keep up she did, and then with a final pass and sprint, she won her first PTFCA state title in another big PR of 4:56.37. That is the mark that made her the top seed for Penn.
With the travel budget exhausted, Piccirillo stayed close to home instead of going to New York or Boston for the established national indoor championships. She would PR at the Ohio national meet that same weekend at the GaReat Center in the 800, going 2:14.36. She also ran a 4:57.64 mile, finishing second in both races to Ohio junior Hannah Neczypor.
To open the spring, Angel ran the 1600 at the Altoona Igloo Invitational, winning in 5:02.10, again over Kelsey Seymour. A week later on April 3rd in only the 7th race ever at the 1600/mile distance, she faced some strong early season competition in Kelsey Seymour, Lewisburg's Kalyn Fisher and ELCO's Kayleigh Perry.
Usually Piccirillo likes to follow others. But in this race, she was forced to lead, with Seymour, Fisher and Perry in tow. "I guess I was getting some of my own medicine," she opined.
Her coach had her targeting 72 second quarters, which she did fine for the first and last ones. But a 78 and 77, second and third laps missed her goal.
Her time of 4:57.65 for 1600 was her third best ever. And she doubled back that day in the 800 in 2:16.29.
Two weeks later she was again doing the 1600-800 double. This time, in a cold, 20+mph wind at the Shippensburg Invitational, she erased the supposed Ship blemish of 2009 by winning both events entirely from the front - going 5:08.41 and 2:20.94. In neither race was she challenged. The best times on the day came from more competitive races, as Chloe Schmidt went 2:16.82 and Lindsay Kerr ran 5:08.11.
Schmidt, Seymour, Perry and Piccirillo will meet; along with many others; this coming Thursday at the Penn Relays Carnival High School Girls Invitational Mile.
It's all a blur, according to Piccirillo. "I didn't even know what Penn Relays was before indoor."
"Penn was not even on our radar," says Gentile.
But her coach is not rushing her to the front, even though all indications are that she belongs there.
"We put her in the sophomore race at the Foot Locker Northeast Regionals last November," says Gentile. She won in 20:17.1, a time that would have been top 50 on all races on the day, and top 11 of all sophomores in the northeast. In her first year of cross country.
One thing is for sure, Angel is now a student of her events for every race. She is new to the mile. New to the 800. And new to cross country. She definitely is depending upon her coaches.
Something about her also says she is doing some of the homework on her events on her own. "I'm into analysis. I like math, and I like the sciences, zoology and marine biology" she says.
While the 800 and 5000 have their moments of strategy, one is really a controlled sprint, while the other is a sprint at the end of a painful tempo run.
The mile is for thinkers... which is something that Piccirillo finds so appealing.
Both she and her coach know that she'll figure it out one race at a time.
But Gentile says she has that something special that the best always do. "She runs fearlessly."
That fire and that talent have brought her from the running in the halls, to the 400, to the 4x800, to the 5K, to the mile - all in one short year.
"I have surprised myself," she says quite modestly. "It has happened so fast."
Yep, fast is the perfect word to describe Angel.