Race Flow stories by Jayson Jackson
Photos by Doug Michaels, Megan Clugh and Lex Mercado
At the half mile point in the race, Home Center’s Angel Piccirillo had about a 15 yard lead on the chase pack of Elk County Cathloc’s Kennedy Weisner, Leah Anne Wirfel of Forest Hills, and South Fayette’s Nicole Hilton. Piccirillo was running with ease and seemed completely focused on her race and strategy. The other three girls who were racing for runner-up honors were locked in a tight battle. They just were never able to make up any ground on Piccirillo even though they were exerting more effort.
As the runners crossed the bridge to head for the Aloha Hills, Piccirillo’s lead was about 25 yards with the same three in tow, but Adair Gennocro of St. Marys and Elk Lake’s Maria Trowbridge had started to distance themselves from the main pack and make their run for top-five honors. Piccirillo glided over the course so easily, that it almost didn’t seem fair to the rest of the competition. She was the only person on the day to maintain and grow the lead she had going into the Aloha Hills all the way to the finish. At two miles Piccirillo now led by 100 yards, the race between her and the clock was on for all to see.
Wiesner, Wirfel and Hilton were still together, but it was getting obvious the early chase on Angel might take its toll on a few them, especially with their chase pack growing in numbers. As they crossed the bridge for the last time, Piccirillo increased her lead and headed for home. When she hit the flat stretch, she picked it up to make the final charge for home as the battle for second was as tight as ever.
Hilton and Weisner were joined by Gennocro and Villa Joseph Marie’s Emma Mahony as Wirfel fell off the pace a bit and tried to stay with Trowbridge over the final half mile. Piccirillo (18:44) cruised to the finish for her first XC state title and the second fastest time on the day. It would have been interesting had she been in the AAA race, because she would have been only 10 seconds up on the field at 2 miles as opposed to 21. Who knows what she could have done over the final mile if she thought she was being pressed. She was followed by Weisner (19:10), Gennocro (19:17), Mahony (19:18), and Hilton (19:20) some 25+ seconds later. Trowbridge (19:35) and Wirfel (19:37) were able to hold off a hard charge from Bridgit Walters (19:38), Rachel Sowinski (19:39), and Lillie Brown (19:40) in the final 800.
As I was standing around the 800m mark a few coaches were talking about Victoria Gerlach and how she mentioned in an interview that she would surrender no ground to Sara Sargent and would go with her from the gun. Ironically, I was talking with a former teammate and current Head Coach at Rider, Bob Hamer, before the meet started about those that generally lead up the first of the Aloha Hills are rarely the ones to break the tape. And so as the runners made the pass at the half-mile mark, there was Gerlach and Sargent leading the field that included, Margo Malone (North Hills), Katie Kinkead (Central Bucks East), Paige Stoner (Pottsville), Lindsay Rheiner (Council Rock North), Meghan McGovern (North Penn), Leigha Anderson (Cumberland Valley), and Angelica Peck (Blackhawk).
As they crossed the bridge for the first time, the pack was still about 8 girls deep, with Gerlach holding a small lead as she was pressing for the hill. As the runners had started to emerge around the hill on the way to two miles, which was very muddy because of the early morning frost, Stoner, Gerlach and Rheiner had built up a seven yard lead. At this point, I think Stoner was going to pull off the upset, not just because of her aggressive move, but because she was smiling as she pressed the pass as they headed up the last of the Aloha Hills. Malone, McGovern, Sargent, Hannah Grossman (Strath Haven), Anderson, and Kinkead were all giving chase, but it looked as if it would be Stoner’s race to lose. When they crossed the bridge for the last time,
Stoner and Rheiner were locked into a battle as Gerlach had been broken, as she was now in the pack with Grossman, McGovern, and Malone, with a trailing Sargent. Rheiner (18:42) was able to pull away from Stoner (18:48) and win the race and Stoner's final sprint held off the charges from Grossman(18:49, 3rd) and Malone (18:49, 4th) to earn runner-up honors. McGovern (18:57) and Sargent (18:59) would be the only other girls to break 19 on the day.
Unfortunately for the early leader of the AA Boys race, they didn’t heed the warnings of the Aloha Hills. As the runners crossed through the crowd of people around the half-mile mark all of the expected contenders were there, including Alex Woodrow (Marion Center), Ryan Smathers (Northeast), Harold Lamour (Carver Engineering & Sciences), Nate Tallada (Saegertown) and John Trueman (Springfield Township). But just before the mile, Smathers would start to assert himself and open up a one-second lead on the field. He continued to press as they crossed the Aloha Hills bridge and had a 15 yard lead on Woodrow who was the first one to give chase.
As they surged up the hill, Smathers was still leading, but Woodrow was being consumed by the pack of Trueman, Joel Christian (Towanda), Tallada, Donny Scatena (Central Columbia), and Tommy Gruschow (Trinity-3). Smathers was still in the lead as they sped through two miles, but the chase pack was starting to bear down. As they ran up the last of the Aloha Hills, Smather's lead was diminishing with every step. Everyone was waiting to see who would be leading as they came out on the other side of the hill, and it was Gruschow. Smathers had fallen to 4th.
As they crossed the bridge and headed up the tiny incline, Gruschow made a surge to open up about five yard lead. It was a great move on his part, because it gave him all the separation he needed as he held off all challengers over the last 800 to win the state title in 16:30. I mentioned in the preview article that it would be interesting to see how Gruschow used what he learned from his District 3 championship winning performance at states since he would race the course on back-to-back weekends. Obviously he used it very well since he won the race with a great move over the final 800. He was followed to the line very closely by Holy Redeemer’s A.J. Limongelli (16:31). Elk County Catholic’s Harley Thomson (16:40), Christian (16:43, 4th), and Smathers (16:43, 5th) would round out the top five.
Similar to Piccirillo’s effort, this was the most controlled race of the day. The runners were in a tight pack as they passed 800 on their way out of view to the mile marker. The leaders, Wade Endress (Altoona), Zach Hebda (North Hills) and Juris Silenieks (North Hills), Alex Izewski (Central Bucks East) and Chris Campbell (Council Rock North), led a pack of about 20 through the mile in 4:50. As they prepared to cross the Aloha Hills bridge for the first time, the pack was still tight with some shuffling who was out front. Hebda and Silinieks were still controlling the pace, along with Campbell, Endress, Reece Ayers (Tunkhannock), Izewski, and Alex Moran (Mount Lebanon). But as they approached two miles Ayers was trying to break the field. He held a one-second lead over Jacob Kildoo (Grove City) as the lead pack was being strung by Ayers' push for home. Endress, Hebda, Silenieks, Campbell, Izewski,, and Ryan Gil (North Allegheny) were all trying to answer Ayers move as they headed up the final Aloha Hill.
As they headed towards the final bridge crossing, Gil, Ayers, Endress, and Kildoo were starting to pack up for the final charge as Hebda gave chase. Ayers was still leading, and Gil looked the best in the pack. After crossing the bridge and heading up the incline, Gil made a perfectly timed move on the flat stretch to open up a small gap. Endress was the first to respond as he moved past Ayers, with Campbell, Kildoo, and Hebda following suit.
As it turned out, Gil was able to maintain the gap all the way to the line as he won his first PIAA title in 15:52. Endress (15:54) was able to reverse the results from Tri-States And Steel City, as he finished second, one second up on Hebda (3rd) and Campbell (4th). Kildoo would lock up 5th as the last person to break 16 minutes, as Ayers finished in 6th with 16:08.
Photos by Doug Michaels, Megan Clugh and Lex Mercado