By Don Rich
North Allegheny has been one of the top programs over many years, and most recently at state championship cross country meets, has been living among the top six teams in the state in AAA. Try a run from 2005 through last year of 6th, 5th, 3rd, 3rd, and 2nd.
Sensing a trend here? They are, as well.
But during that span, one league from eastern PA always seems to be blocking their path to the top of the podium. Ches-Mont. As in Chester-Montgomery County League.
In 2005 it was West Chester East who took the title, and Coatesville, which was 4th and West Chester Henderson, who captured 5th, just ahead of North Allegheny
In 2006, it was arguably the best boys' cross country team in the history of Pennsylvania - Coatesville - who not only won the state title with an astounding 26 points, but went on to win the Nike Team Nationals against the nation's best in early December. Henderson had just 76 points that year to take 2nd. North Allegheny - 5th.
(The 2006 Coatesville story: Coatesville's Men of Black: PA's best ever. NTN champions. Fast Friends.
With the Coatesville juggernaut mostly graduated, it opened the door a bit for District 1's North Penn to sweep the next two years. But in 2007, Coatesville did return strong enough to capture 2nd. North Allegheny - 3rd. And in 2008, District 12's newly minted PIAA member school LaSalle, would be runner-up to North Penn. Henderson was an unusual 7th. And North Allegheny? 3rd again.
But North Allegheny (North Allegheny after D7 win - Photo by John Gayler, North Allegheny) avenged the PIAA meet results that year by retooling and qualifying for Nike Cross Nationals a month later, to finish the season as arguably the best of 2008.
(The 2008 North Allegheny story: NXN NE: North Allegheny knew they were good this year. Now everyone else does too.)
2009 would surely be different.
But alas, Henderson took over the top spot again, and again, relegated North Allegheny to 2nd.
Enter 2010. North Allegheny looks, on paper, to be among the top teams in the state, and in fact, started as the #2 pre-season pick, behind Altoona. They would remain #2 until they made a mid-season statement at Carlisle, beating a slightly short-handed Altoona squad by 47 points.
North Allegheny would train through much of October, and retain the top spot until a slight hiccup at the October 21st Tri-States Invitational on their district course, losing to fellow District 7 power Baldwin. They were missing #1 Ryan Gil to a toe injury, but the misstep cost them the top ranking.
Lurking in the shadows – actually, they were racing a relay here and there, before emerging from their training cocoon in early October – was West Chester Henderson. They nearly knocked off the #6 team in the U.S. at a huge meet in New Jersey, and quickly moved up to PA#3. Two weeks later, they were #2.
And after Baldwin's 'upset' of North Allegheny on the same day as the Ches-Mont Championships, Henderson moved into the #1 spot.
They remain there today.
Baldwin and North Allegheny traded 2 and 3 after Gil returned and North Allegheny won the District 7 title on October 28th.
But in District 1, Henderson was putting on a clinic.
It's not a weak district. Maybe not as deep as many years on the boys' side in 2010, but strong, nonetheless.
All Henderson did was enter the race with 416 competitors and place five in the top 33 to total an amazing 73 points. Equally impressive was their 37-second compression off a 4th place 15:41 by #1 Bryan Andrews. Fellow senior Austin Stecklair was 8th in 15:49; Frosh Reiny Barchet 14th in 16:05; Senior Tim Collins 17th in 16:07, and Junior Charlie Grab, 33rd in 16:18. #6 Mike Salach was just 14 seconds back, just in case. Only Andrews, Stecklair and Collins return from the top seven of 2009.
(Henderson after D1 win - Photo courtesy of Walt Stecklair)
The 2nd place team? North Penn. With 232 points. One of only five teams in the 200's out of 59 teams in the race. And the final District 1 qualifier, Great Valley, also from the mighty Ches-Mont, was 2nd in the league this year, losing to Henderson by 25-72.
So where does that leave North Allegheny?
They believe in a nice spot. They have a real front-runner in Gil, who might just take his last dance at Hershey with just one point. Always a great place to start.
But their 1:16 compression may have to tighten a bit to overcome the 37-second pack of Henderson.
So, why no mention of pre-season and much-of-the-season #1 Altoona.
Absolutely no disrespect intended, or delivered.
Simply put, if North Allegheny can't knock off this year's Ches-Mont power Henderson, then Altoona is the team to do it.
They were easy winners at their first two meets, Big Valley on their district course, and PTXC-2, where they beat District 3 state qualifier Manheim Township by a lot.
Like North Allegheny, they have a potential 1-pointer in senior Wade Endress. And while they lost two of their top five and three of seven from their 4th place squad of 2009, the top returners all stepped up their training. Like other 2009 teams, the Swine Flu played havoc with a guy or two. They won their own invitational on September 18th, before their 2nd place (minor) slip at Carlisle to North Allegheny. Endress did beat Gil that day. The loss cost them their #1 ranking. Endress was the top PA runner.
A week later, Endress ran into one of the other favorites for the individual title, Council Rock North senior Chris Campbell at Steel City. But Council Rock North, the #4 qualifier out of District 1, was 2nd to Altoona that day, 114-161.
Following a win at State College, the Lions were off to the big Tri-States Invite, where they took third behind the upset-minded Baldwin team, and a Gil-less North Allegheny five.
(PTXC-2 Champs - Photo by Doug Michaels)
Eight days later, Altoona captured their third straight District 6 AAA title, with Endress winning his third straight individual crown. PR's were sprinkled throughout the team, including Endress. Despite the performance, they did not move up from their current PA#5.
Just a little more motivation.
Sitting in PA#4 and #5, respectively, are D7's Baldwin, and D12's Cardinal O'Hara.
Baldwin boasts a strong pack, running just a 55-second compression off their #1 Bobby Bishop's 6h place 16:02 in their runner-up at the District 7 championships. And Cardinal O'Hara dominated the always strong Philadelphia Catholic League by taking five of the top 11 spots, with a meager 27-second compression on the hills of Belmont Plateau. #1 Chris Garrity was 2nd in 16:39. During the season, O'Hara had lost only to US-ranked Tatnall DE at the Briarwood Invitational, and then swept the rest of their season, including the PIAA Foundation Gold race by a lot.
So where does that leave the team race? If you read this closely, you know.
Retiring North Hills coach John Wilkie doesn't teach in the district any more. So recruiting athletes in the school is tough.
But the athletes he does get are tough. The girls upset North Allegheny at the District 7 meet. And his top three senior guys swept the top three spots at both Tri-States on October 21st, and District 7 a week later.
The order was different. At Tri-States, it was Juris Silenieks, Zach Hebda and Joe Kush (returning PA#5) 11 seconds apart, with Kush eight seconds up on Endress. At District 7, it was Hebda, Silenieks and Kush just nine seconds apart and Kush one second up on Gil. The 5th place finisher both times was North Allegheny #2 Logan Steiner.
(Photos of North Hills three and Ryan Gil, below left, by Doug Michaels from District 7)
But could it be? Could the three sweep the top three spots in the state?
Some say yes. History says no. But won't it be fun to find out.
However, there are at least seven more guys who could not only break up that three-person party, but crash it to the point of winning the whole thing.
The season says the most likely to take home the individual crown is Council Rock North senior Chris Campbell. He busted a 15:16 to easily win District 1. It's his fourth trip to the meet, and he does not seem happy with his 7th place finish from 2009. In head-to-head to pulled away from Endress at Steel City. And he won everything he raced easily, including Abington, Council Rock, his SOL division and District 1. Long-time Council Rock North coach Dave Marrington has a lot of great things to say about his top runner. If we told you, you'd be able to come up with a plan. So we'll tell you Saturday after the race.
(Photo by Don Rich from District 1)
While the season says one thing, recent history could hint at someone else. The top returning harrier is North Allegheny #1 Ryan Gil, who was 3rd in 2009. Gil went to to qualify for Foot Locker Nationals a month later. The thing about Gil is, he comes up big in the biggest races. And his team is looking for a low score from their leader. So don't be surprised to see the black and gold first up Poop-Out Hill.
In no particular order, the five who could challenge for a top five position if they race to their abilities are Altoona senior Wade Endress, Tunkhannock senior Reese Ayers, Hatboro-Horsham junior Sam Hibbs, LaSalle senior Tom Trainer, and Grove City senior Jacob Kildoo.
Endress wants the team title. Low scores help the cause. And he was fighting illness last year in finishing 20th. He won everything he raced except losses to Campbell and the three-headed North Hills machine. He's healthy and coming off a big PR on his district course.
Ayers was 9th in 2009 and 8th as a sophomore, and is having a great year. It's his 4th time in Hershey. He won Spiked Shoe in State College, had an off day at Carlisle in 12th, but bounced back less than a week later to take Paul Short.
Hibbs is yep, another great running Hibbs. Genes. Coaching. And now a senior, he's motivated. He won the Salesianum Championship race, and was either 2nd or 3rd all year, including a very strong 2nd place to Campbell in District 1.
Trainer has been helping LaSalle do well at the state meet for their first two years, and that won't change in his third and final visit. He was 3rd at Carlisle behind Endress, and beating Kildoo and Ayers. He cruised to the D12 title in a quick 16:12 at Belmont Plateau.
And Kildoo is the biggest unknown, other than he should not be overlooked by anyone in the race. He was 6th at Carlisle in his only race outside of his home area, A 2-time D10 champ, this is his 3rd year in Hershey. He was quite ill in 2009 and still finished 45th. As a sophomore he was 17th. And less than a month later, he nearly earned a trip to Foot Locker Nationals with his 12th place at the Northeast Regional.
Others to watch (alpha order) who will challenge for a medal:
District in ( )
Bryan Andrews, Sr. Henderson, 3rd year, 43rd 2009 (1)
Bobby Bishop, Jr. Baldwin, 2nd year, 23rd 2009 (7)
Ben Copenhaver, Sr. Jersey Shore, 3rd year (4)
Quinn Devlin, Jr. Downingtown West, 2nd year, 5th at Carlisle, 3rd in D1 2nd Paul Short to Ayers (1)
Alex Galli, Sr. Cedar Crest, 4th year, (3)
Matthey Groff, Sr. Hempfield, 3rd year, (3)
Matt Kacyon, Sr. Whitehall, 4th year, 17th 2009 (11)
Logan Mohn, Sr. Governor Mifflin, 2nd year, 8th 2009 (3)
Ed Schrom, Sr. Central Dauphin, 3rd year (3)
Logan Steiner, Jr. North Allegheny, 3rd year, 25th 2009 running for Meadville (7)
Ned Willig, Sr, Great Valley, 3rd year (1)
Note: Unionville senior Glen Burkhardt missed most of his cross country season with a running-related injury. He was 22nd in 2009.
3 2 Ryan Gil, Jr 4:51 10:06 16:03 5:11 North Allegheny (7)
5 4 Joe Kush, Jr 4:54 10:09 16:10 5:13 North Hills (7)
7 6 Chris Campbell, Jr 4:55 10:20 16:21 5:16 Council Rock N (1)
8 7 Logan Mohn, Jr 4:53 10:15 16:22 5:17 Governor Mifflin (3)
9 8 Reece Ayers, Jr 4:54 10:08 16:23 5:17 Tunkhannock Area (2)
12 10 Sam Hibbs, So 4:56 10:20 16:26 5:18 Hatboro Horsham (1)
13 11 Juris Silenieks, Jr 4:54 10:13 16:27 5:18 North Hills (7)
17 Matt Kacyon, Jr 4:52 10:16 16:29 5:19 Whitehall (11)
20 13 Wade Endress, Jr 4:53 10:11 16:34 5:20 Altoona Area (6)
22 15 Glen Burkhardt, Jr 5:00 10:22 16:36 5:21 Unionville (1)
23 16 Bobby Bishop, So 4:54 10:21 16:39 5:22 Baldwin (7)
25 Logan Steiner, So 4:56 10:22 16:42 5:23 Meadville (10)