PA #1 Pre-Season Boys: There are some good signs that this could be 'Toona's year.




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Altoona is quietly optimistic this season.
If there is a repeat of 1954... they will be thrilled.


Don't mistake the silence coming from Altoona for a lack of confidence by this year's boys team. They're feeling very good about what they have.


They just don't want to talk about it. And they certainly don't want to say anything that would give their competition any extra motivation.


After all, the closest the boys' team has come to a PA title since the last one in 1954, were a couple of runner-up finishes in the 90's. (They also won in 1951 and tied Mt. Lebanon in 1941).


So it's been awhile. 56 years if you're doing the math.


This year, this team will let their racing do the talking. And if in the end, they take a place atop the podium at the PIAA State Championships on November 6th in Hershey, they'll still keep it low key.


Last year they did a lot of talking. They let their confidence show. But this year, there is a different attitude.


"Our team leaders (seniors Wade Endress and Tyler Lidwell) don't get in your face like a drill sargent. They will deal with things one on one and let you know their expectations," says head coach Lee Baranik.


In a way, this year's team is more a reflection of their long-time head coach. Reserved. Soft-spoken. But intensely passionate about the sport and the young men who choose to make this sport, theirs.


He notices a difference. "They're not saying much this year. I find that interesting. I am optimistic."


Now in his 30th year, this coach knows what everyone else in the sport knows, that the processes used to succeed in cross country – goal-setting, preparation and perseverance – are the same things they need to succeed in their adult lives.


You also need confidence. And for the past three springs, Altoona's top distance runner, senior Wade Endress, has gained confidence as a key part of two AAA Boys Track & Field titles (2008, 2010) and a runner-up finish (2009).


In fact, his entire 2010 spring was about building confidence.


After a somewhat disappointing end to his 2009 cross country campaign, Endress rededicated himself to the sport. He had run the PIAA XC champs with a case of bronchitis, but still managed to medal. Teammate Tyler Lidwell had fought back Swine Flu all season. Score those two in their expected spots, and Altoona gets very close to winning. They would give it another shot at the NXN Regionals. Endress would take 9th that day, and Lidwell would improve from 7th man to 3rd man, but 10th was the best they could do.


At outdoor states, Endress would earn two individual medals in helping his team win their second title in three years. His 4th place PR of 1:53.34 would earn a spot on the NSSF Caribbean Scholastic team, where he would face older guys and still run away with a 1:52.24 PR and 3rd place.


Endress will lead a team that lost two of their scoring five, and three of their varsity seven.


Yes, he knows that it doesn't look like they can just plug in and run like other, more storied programs.


But Endress and his coach believe differently.


They return junior Patrick Reade, who ran 4th for them at states as a soph. They return Korey Replogle, also a junior who ran 5th for them at states.


When sophomores becomes juniors, they get stronger. And that is exactly what Coach Baranik says they have done this summer.


The two are top baseball players who forgo their school team in favor of track, but then try out and compete all summer on the Altoona Curve (AA affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates) junior team.


Back to full health is now-senior Tyler Lidwell.


And rounding out the projected top five is junior Dylan Mountain, a 9:50 3200 guy. "He has really come on, really moved up," says Baranik.


But the key to scoring in XC is a top five close to your top guy. And Endress says he can see a 70-second spread from 1-5 off his front running times, even when they dip into the mid 15's.


According to both Baranik and Endress, this team is even deeper than that.


Both see the competition from six to nine being interchangeable all year. And when there is competition from six to nine, someone inevitably breaks into the top five. And that is when great things can happen.


In no particular order, this group fighting for a varsity (and ultimately scoring) slot includes seniors Terry Futrell and Ryan Gallagher, plus sophomore Cory Nail.


A new challenger to the group is first-year runner James McTavish.


Now you won't find any times for this senior, simply because this is literally his first time on a cross country team, and he didn't even run track last spring.


Baranik says that McTavish moved to Altoona four years ago, and has done pretty much every sport. "He has been a very nice surprise," says the coach who has seen a few surprises in his three decades of coaching.


As coach and teammate tell it, McTavish started dating a girl on the track team. He would go for runs with her. And eventually started running on his own, and with the guys on the team. He could eventually make the top seven.


"We had to explain cross country scoring to him," relates Baranik.


The team will run their usual contingent of invitationals. For many programs, it may seem like a lot. But for a strong AAA team in a very small AAA district (there are only six AAA teams), it is their opportunity to learn how to race in all kinds of conditions, and simply put, just part of the training. And fitting with Coach Baranik's philosophy, they are not high mileage. So they have the legs to race more.


They will open Saturday September 4th at Big Valley, site of their district meet; then travel to PTXC-2 September 11th, Carlisle on September 25th, Steel City on October 2nd and Tri-States on October 21 before starting their post-season run.


Getting around the state is one advantage that Altoona has over most teams. Centrally located between I-80 and the PA-Turnpike, with an interconnecting interstate (I-99), they can zip to Pittsburgh or Carlisle in similar travel times. So most places are a day trip.


"It helps us to get to know different racing styles and especially different teams from all round the state," says Endress.


But no matter how much they get around the state, it seems that many great runners who start in Altoona, return to Altoona... or go on to coach.


For starters, a volunteer coach the past few years has been Travis Etters, who led their runner-up teams in the 90's.


And the girls head coach is Tabitha Quinn, who was on the last Altoona cross country team to win the state title in 1988. They also won in 1982 and 1983.


The school has only had two individual champions. Vernon Miller in 1941 and Debbie White in 1983.  Debbie White as in Debbie Utesch, now the women's head coach in XC and Assistant coach in track at Lehigh University. 


And Etter's twin, Todd, is also a coach at Lehigh.


That history of success on the team has spread through the program the past few years, as evidenced by the performance of the track team.


Endress, for one, says that he has incredible confidence in the runners behind him. "Knowing they are right there gives me confidence."


And he is drawing some inspiration from the Altoona High School Wall of Fame, where every champion, every all-state athlete in every sport is honored.


What he sees is that the 1954 boys track team won the state title, and then the distance guys from that team came back in the fall to win the cross country title as well.


"We are just focused on Hershey," says Endress. "We can't worry about anyone else, just our own training and our own races."


Wade, for one, thinks 56 years is long enough to wait for a state title.


PTXC Pre-Season: Overall Top 10

1. Altoona
2. North Allegheny
3. Baldwin
4. Council Rock North
5. Henderson
6. North Hills
7. Cardinal O'Hara
8. Cumberland Valley
9. Lasalle
T-10. Unionville
T-10. Council Rock South