AAA Preview: Smith-Fisher, Sargents lead Uville-Pennsbury war | O'Hara on a mission. But...


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By Cory Mull




Girls Class AAA:
While promise surrounded Unionville before the start of the Class AAA girls’ cross country season, it’s been their execution that has catapulted the Indians from contender to favorite. Led by junior Courtney Smith, who owns a PA#1 time of 17:36, Unionville has delivered when it’s counted.
But should we just stop and crown Unionville state champs? Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. It would be poor judgement to sleep on Pennsbury, the two-time returning state champion. It’s impossible to overlook a Falcon squad that hosts one of the best rosters in the state, with former state champion Sara Sargent and younger sister, Olivia Sargent, leading the way. The Falcons popped a compression of just 25 seconds at their district meet, with Olivia's team-leading 18:09 guiding the way. Pennsbury recently captured their SOL National Conference Championship meet and the Carlisle Invitational in September.
While Smith has led the darling Indians into contention in 2012, the Falcons have reloaded with a strong squad of their own, helmed by the Sargents, Maddie Sauer, Hannah Molloy and Erica Gray. Pack-running has been key.


The competition at the top has been inviting theater, ultimately with each squad vying for the same goal. So far, however, Unionville has made impressive moves from the top. The Indians won two of the most telling meets, the District 1 Championships on October 26 and the PIAA Foundation Invitational in September. The Indians have ultimately proven that it's not just Smith leading the way. Their 52 second spread at the District 1 Championships essentially proved that while Smith was leading from the front, their second, third, fourth and fifth options weren't far behind either. Emily Fisher (18:06) is as strong as most team's No. 1 option, while Anne Birkenmaier, Olivia Young and Gretchen Mills have certainly taken hold of the pack-running mentality.
It would be no surprise if either team took home a title Saturday, though other squads certainly will make arguments for their own causes. Central Bucks West, led by front-runners Emory Griffin and Maddie Villalba, sit nearby with talent to boot. They compiled a 42 second compression at the District 1 championships. The third-ranked CB West program captured the Bulldog Invitational at Rose Tree Park in September as well.
Fellow District 1 school North Penn, ranked fifth state-wide, also should contend, along with District 7’s Mount Lebanon, a team with a healthy top three and encouraging four and five runners.  If all holds to court, the state team title race could be the most compelling story coming out of the meet on Saturday.

Individually, the field is as talented as it’s ever been. Naturally, on a course like Hershey, anything can happen, with a slew of hills dominating in mile 2 and a last-ditch incline with less than 400 meters to go. Traditionally, fast times have not been favorable to runners. Over the last three years, the Class AAA winner of the Parkview course has fluctuated in the mid 18:30s, though 2011 was the fastest year over a three-year span. North Penn’s Meghan McGovern captured the course crown in 18:28.
Unionville’s Smith owns the state’s fastest time at 17:36, though Pennridge sophomore Marissa Sheva isn’t too far behind either at 17:45. Five Class AAA runners own times under 18 minutes, though on a course like Hershey, experience proves to be a runner’s best asset.
Sara Sargent is a former winner and a top 10 finisher in each of her three previous high school seasons. Steph Aldrich, of West Chester Henderson, scored an 17:55 at the District 1 meet, while Kara Steinke of Methacton crossed just two seconds later at 17:57. Pennsbury's Olivia Sargent was the top finisher for the district champs. She owns an 18:09 on the season.
Smarts and strategy is what counts at Hershey. A conservative first mile has always been a good option, though if you're too far out from the lead pack too early, playing catch-up certainly will play a factor, too.
Shaler sophomore Brianna Schwartz opened a lot of eyes this fall, winning Red, White & Blue, Pittsburgh Central Catholic, Tri-States and the District 7 meet. Cumberland Valley freshman Mady Clahane, who scored an 18:10 at the Paul Short Run at Lehigh, shouldn't be overlooked, nor should Penn Manor's Greta Lindsley, who owns an 18:13. District 3 runners sometimes have the best insight into the Hershey course, with many having been on it more than their counterparts.
North Hill's Mary Malone, Council Rock North's Kate Scott and Unionville's Emily Fisher should be toward the front. Pottsville's Paige Stoner, a runner up in 2010 and 11th place finisher in 2011, owns an 18:21 and is a contender for a medal once again, as is Central York's Kelsey Ibarra, who was out last year with an injury.

District Champs

I.     1  Courtney Smith, Jr         17:36    5:40  Unionville
II.     1  Taylor Ross, Sr            20:58    Abington Heights
III.        1  Mady Clahane, Fr                5:37       11:55    18:49    Cumberland Valley
IV.        Competed in District 2
 V.         No Teams
VI.       1  Emma Cousins, Jr           19:40    6:20  State College Area
VII.     1  Brianna Schwartz, So*      18:32    5:59  Shaler Area=
VIII.    1  Ashley Hankins                                        22:51.0                      Carrick
IX.       Competed in District 10
X.        1  Melissa Perseo, Sr              6:19       13:12    20:18    6:33  McDowell
XI.      1  Meredith Colton, Jr        19:21    6:14  Bangor
XII.    1 Mancini, Grace             9 Cardinal Ohara        18:48.79

Returning Medalists

    4     3  Courtney Smith, So         18:44    6:02  Unionville (1)       
    6        Marissa Sheva, Fr          18:50    6:04  Pennridge (1)        
    7     5  Sara Sargent, Jr           18:55    6:06  Pennsbury (1)        
    8        Greta Lindsley, So         18:58    6:07  Penn Manor (3)       
    9     6  Stephanie Aldrich, Jr      18:58    6:07  Wc Henderson (1)
   10     7  Tessa Mundell, Jr          18:58    6:07  Governor Mifflin (3)
   11        Paige Stoner, So           18:59    6:07  Pottsville Area (11)
   13        Tess Meehan, Jr            19:06    6:09  Haverford Township (1)
   16     8  Erica Gray, So             19:09    6:10  Pennsbury (1)        
   19     9  Katelyn Callaghan, Jr      19:15    6:12  Downington East (1)  
  20     Julie Friend, Jr     19:15    6:13  Uniontown Area (7)
   21    10  Erin O'Connell, Fr         19:19    6:14  Pennsbury (1)        
   22        Brianna Schwartz, Fr       19:19    6:14  Shaler Area (7)



There are two stark realities when it comes to cross country. There is the race you’re expected to run, the race that everyone envisions out of your team based on statistics. And then there is the race that actually unfolds, developing in real time, sometimes contrary to projections.

These are two realities that often get blurred. On Saturday at the boys’ Class AAA PIAA state championships in Hershey, this understanding has never felt so real. With the top five teams in the state legitimately in contention for the team title, it’s anyone’s guess what may actually unfold on the Parkview course.

Of course, if statistics ran the world, Cardinal O’Hara would easily win the team trophy. With three runners owning times in the top 10 in the state, the Lions are the odds-on favorites to win. They almost claimed the trophy a year ago, tying agonizingly with North Penn with 132 points. The Knights eventually won in displacement.

So a tinge of revenge could still hold strong in Cardinal O’Hara, a team that is the very definition of pack-running with three at the front. Team-leading Dan Savage (15:23), Kevin James (15:27) and Ernie Pitone (15:30) are but seven seconds away from each other’s top time, while Chris Pastore and Jim Belfatto are shades over 16 minutes.

But there’s just no way you can discount West Chester Henderson, the second-ranked team in the state, and North Allegheny, the third-ranked team. Both West Chester and North Allegheny have been in the hunt for the state title over the last three years, with the Tigers winning in 2010, taking second in 2009 and third in 2011. They also won it all in 1997. The Warriors, meanwhile, won in 2002, 2003 and 2009, and were second in 1997, 2001, 2006 and 2010.

Factoring in times, the Warriors average a 57 second spread, though Tony Russell, the fastest runner in the state with a 15:11, skews the numbers with his efforts. He also ran the #4 all-time on O'Hara's home course of Belmont Plateau at the Briarwood Invitational - a 15:42. West Chester Henderson has three of five runners returning from a year ago, when they placed fifth overall.

The Tigers, meanwhile, average an astounding seven second spread between their first to fifth runners. If they can replicate this precision in Hershey, there’s no reason why North Allegheny couldn’t easily go home with their second championship in three seasons.

And let’s not forget about Council Rock North, the fifth-ranked team in the state who placed sixth a year ago. With three returning varsity runners from 2011, they should be considered a threat to surprise.

On a course like Hershey, which can eat up runners over the second half of the race, there’s no telling how the class AAA event will unfold. Weather and conditions could play a very legitimate factor, with the remnants of Hurricane Sandy and the foot-strike patterns of five previous races changing the landscape for the final race of the day.

Individually, Hatboro-Horsham senior Connor Quinn has the potential to become a two-time winner of the field. He will have his work cut out for him, though, since he stands 14th overall within the state with a 15:32. While hills could be his forte, experienced racers eager to make statements could step in front. Only two runners have accomplished the feat - Dan Coval of Council Rock North in 1998-99, and Craig Miller of Manheim Township from 2003-2005.

West Chester Henderson’s Russell could be considered a favorite after scoring a 15:11 at the District 1 meet. Council Rock North’s Ross Wilson owns a time of 15:19, while Henderson’s second-leading runner, Reiny Barchet owns a time of 15:22.

Harriton’s  Max Norris (15:23) will be a threat, but so will Cardinal O’Hara’s Dan Savage (15:23), Kiski Area’s Brent Kennedy (15:27), District 12 champ Tom Coyle of LaSalle, Cardinal O’Hara’s Kevin James (15:27), North Penn’s Jack McCauley (15:28) and Cardinal O’Hara’s Ernie Pitone. Kennedy was seventh a year ago.

One to look out for may be Pennsbury’s Connor Harriman, who stands 18th on the state ranking with a 15:36, but who finished 10th last year on the merits of a final kick. He also won this year's PIAA Foundation Gold Race. And it would be wrong to omit a District 3 runner, potentially Cumberland Valley’s Alec Kunzweiler, who has experience and firsthand knowledge of the course. He is also this year's District 3 champ.

In the end, the Class AAA field could come down to a final sprint. Or it could be a breakaway win for a new runner. Just keep in mind the reality might not fit the expectation.









District Champs

 I.   1  Tony Russell, Jr           15:11    4:54  West Chester Henderso           
 II.     1  Jacob Fetterman, Sr        18:44    Hazleton Area
III.    1  Alec Kunzweiler, Sr             4:58       10:21    16:35    Cumberland Valley
IV.     Competed in District 2
 V.     No AAA Teams
VI.     1  Jon Colwell, Sr            16:17    5:15  Mifflin County
VII.    1  Brent Kennedy, Jr          15:59    5:09  Kiski Area
VIII.   1   Zach Wierzchowski                                  18:07.2                       Carrick
IX.      Competed in District 10
X.      1  Austin Pondel, Sr               5:07       10:39    16:23    5:17  Corry Area
XI.    1  Colin Abert, So            16:21    5:16  Easton
XII.   1 Coyle, Tom                12 Lasalle College       15:59.85

Returning Medalists

    1        Conner Quinn, Jr                4:51    16:03    5:11  Hatboro Horsham (1)  
    4     2  Dan Savage, Jr                  4:51    16:13    5:14  Cardinal O'Hara (12)
    7     4  Brent Kennedy, So               4:55    16:16    5:15  Kiski Area (7)       
    8     5  Tom Coyle, Jr                   4:49    16:17    5:15  La Salle College (12)
   10        Connor Harriman, Jr             4:53    16:21    5:16  Pennsbury (1)        
   11     7  Mike Biolatta, Jr               4:55    16:22    5:17  Cardinal O'Hara (12)
   14     8  Alec Kunzweiler, Jr             4:56    16:24    5:17  Cumberland Valley (3)
   17    11  Jack Macauley, Jr               4:54    16:26    5:18  North Penn (1)       
   18        Chris Culley, Jr                4:55    16:28    5:18  Moon Area (7)        
   22    14  Ean Disilvio, Jr                4:53    16:31    5:19  Allderdice (8)       
   23        Austin Pondel, Jr               4:57    16:31    5:20  Corry Area (10)      
   25        Caleb Wakeley, So               5:04    16:33    5:20  Shaler Area (7)