The decisions were made, and this was no time to be messing around.
Whether it was bringing out the heavy equipment – “Half-inch, giant spikes!” as one competitor put it – or resting a team’s top runners to prepare for even bigger late-season races and honors, competitors and coaches upped the intensity Thursday in the Tri-State Track Coaches Association meet at Cooper’s Lake.
Training Changes Help Shaler Area Star Stay Out Front
In less than three years in the sport, Brianna Schwartz has grown accustomed to leading and winning races. So it proved difficult for the Shaler Area standout to focus on training and not racing early in the 2013 season.
“It was really hard to miss out on Red, White & Blue because that’s a really fast course,” said Schwartz, who did not have an invitational on her schedule until the first weekend in October. “Everybody had these fast times, they even broke my record. It was pretty hard.”
Schwartz made up for lost time on the starting line and began to reap some of the benefits of a greater focus on the big races with a wire-to-wire victory on a very muddy 5,000-meter layout. The conditions didn’t appear to affect the junior as she was the first up the opening hill and was never headed in defending her event title in 18:31.
“It was a pretty good time for these conditions,” said the winner, who noted that her increased mileage this fall has made her stronger. “I definitely wanted to run faster, but with the muddy course, it was basically impossible.”
Freshman Marianne Abdalah of Vincentian Academy was the last runner to have contact with Schwartz, shadowing the 2013 Class AAA 1,600 champion for as long as she could.
“I tried to keep close distance, but you don’t want to break an ankle today,” said Abdalah, who finished second in 18:58. “You wanted to stay on the side that was less muddy so never stay in the middle because that was the mud pit of the whole run.”
Mary Malone of North Hills was third in 19:26, while Alexis O’Shea of West Allegheny finished in 19:46 and Uniontown’s Julie Gerber in 19:52. Hampton’s Gina Alm was sixth and the last under 20 minutes in 19:59.
Coaches’ Decisions Open Door for New Team Champion
As he watched his state-ranked team warm up for Thursday’s race amid the wind-blown rain and ever-thickening mud, Mt. Lebanon coach Ron Schreiner thought about a similar situation seven years before at Cooper’s Lake and he knew what he had to do.
Fifteen minutes before more than 500 girls heard the starter’s gun fire, Schreiner pulled his PA#3 Blue Devils out of the race, saying they had more to lose than gain by racing in conditions that had many competitors using longer spikes to gain traction and keep from falling.
In 2006, Mt. Lebanon also did not compete in the Tri-State meet. The Blue Devils came back a week later – under improved conditions at the same venue – to run away with the WPIAL Class AAA team title by 47 points.
And with PA#7 North Allegheny choosing to rest some of their starters as well Thursday, Villa Maria Academy appeared to be in the driver’s seat. Having finished third a year ago behind the two Class AAA powers, the Victors didn’t let the chance slip their fingers despite the muddy conditions.
“We thought if we can replicate that (from last year) it would be good because Mt. Lebanon and North Allegheny are so strong,” coach Therese Brown said of pre-race expectations. “I thought they looked great, they ran as a nice pack.”
Although it was without 2012 state medalist Bernadette Prichard, Villa Maria claimed the top trophy with 184 points. Freshman Carlee Constable led the way with a 16th-place finish, while sophomore Claire Brown was 29th.
“We’re lucky we have some depth, and we could run 10 girls today,” Brown said of the key to her team’s victory.
Seneca Valley was next with 208, followed by Mars Area at 222, North Hills with 228 and North Allegheny getting fifth at 235 in a tiebreaker over Kiski Area.
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(With apologies to doo-wop group The Tokens and their hit The Lion Sleeps Tonight)
At Cooper’s Lake, muddy Cooper’s Lake, the Tigers sleep tonight.
While the starting five of one of the nation’s best teams rested Thursday, a young Eagle soared to new heights, pushing the state’s defending track distance champion to the brink.
Ethan Martin’s Kick Passes Test of Grove City’s Benka
Ethan and Colin Martin of Fox Chapel Area surely were solid favorites entering the Tri-State Track Coaches Association meet, having done nothing but win during a limited racing schedule this fall after dominating distance races last spring. The race seemingly was theirs to win convincingly.
That message apparently didn’t make its way to Grove City Area’s Aaron Benka, who turned the muddy course into his personal playground. The junior made the Martins and the rest of the nearly 600 runners play catch-up, only yielding the lead during the final strides as Ethan Martin rallied for the narrow victory.
“(Colin and I) were just thinking we’ll work together the whole time,” said Ethan Martin, who was credited with the victory in 16 minutes, 34 seconds. “Thankfully, Aaron was pushing us the whole way. He led for most of it. He did a lot of the work.
“He was scaring me. He still had a nice 20-meter lead on Colin and I toward the end. I wasn’t sure because I was losing confidence and I was getting pretty nervous because it was getting close to the finish. My coach kept screaming at me, ‘lower the arms, think like a sprinter’ and that’s what I had to do.”
Martin’s all-out dash was needed as Benka sloshed his way to the front and didn’t let the conditions or the pedigree of his challengers slow him down.
“My mindset for the race today was to go out and just see what I could do against all of the AAA teams there today,” said Benka, who also was clocked in 16:34. “I knew Ethan and Colin Martin were going to be there, so when I saw that Ethan was right in front of me I kinda let him go just to see what he was going to do. But after about 400 meters, I noticed that he was only a couple of meters ahead of me so I just paced off of him for the whole race and he really pushed me and helped me through that race.”
During the midsection of the course, Benka was off Ethan Martin’s right shoulder and in front of Colin Martin, letting the Class AAA standouts know he was not going away. As the rain and wind picked up, the Grove City junior put himself in position to take the lead and almost steal a victory from the favorites.
“I liked what he did,” Grove City coach Mike Sample said of Benka. “He didn’t fall back, he didn’t cave to the pressure, he fought to the end. I really thought he had a good shot of taking it. Obviously, we need a little track and field speed out of him because he ran a very strong race the whole way through.
“I thought he looked good, I thought he looked determined. There are some kinks still to work out, but he’s learning as he goes. He’s still young, I think the best is yet to come for him.”
As the leaders entered the final down-and-back-and down sections, Benka put a gap on the Fox Chapel stars as Colin moved into the No. 2 spot. All that remained was the dash through the castle gate and the final 200 meters to the finish.
“I was very surprised when I saw myself pulling away from the Martins,” Benka said. “I always believed in myself that with God I can do all things, and before my race I just kept praying because I got hurt the last race and I knew I had a big race ahead of me and I just took advantage of what I had.
“It came down to the wire and the very last inches of the race, but I couldn’t be more proud of that race. Ethan truly is an amazing athlete, and I wish the best of luck to him for the rest of the season.”
Colin Martin was third in 16:37, while Nathan Sloan of Hampton was fourth in 16:45 as seniors claimed six of the first nine slots. Grove City’s Ryan Budnik supported his teammate’s performance with a solid fifth in 16:52.
Blue Devils Take Full Advantage of Opportunity to Top Team Standings
A year ago, North Allegheny packed its top five runners into the top 13 overall, dominating the field with a 49-point effort. On Thursday, the US#8 Tigers rested their top five, choosing to focus on upcoming meets with state and national honors at stake and leave a possible title defense in the hands of its deep roster.
“No, we knew we were going to do that for a long time,” coach John Neff said when asked if the weather and course conditions played a part in his decision to rest his starting five. “We just felt like end of the season last year we were tired, and we were better than we showed at state last year and we didn’t want that same thing to happen again. It’s going to take something really, really great to do what we want to do (this year).”
Junior Mike Becich was the top Tiger this year, placing 14th as North Allegheny claimed the runner-up trophy with 164 points.
“The guys who were held out today have run (this course) many times,” Neff said of the meet that serves as a preview to next week’s WPIAL championships on the same 5K course. “The guys who hadn’t run it, and we do have some guys on there that haven’t run it, they ran today.”
With the Tigers out of the picture for the afternoon, Mt. Lebanon and head coach Mike Agostinella adjusted their focus slightly as they looked to take full advantage of an open opportunity at top team honors.
“Our philosophy on racing is in every meet there are two competitions,” the veteran coach said. “The first is with yourself, and the second is with the people you are running against.
“Today, our thrust was that first competition ... with ourselves. Focusing, not letting the elements break our concentration. Being prepared and doing battle in less-than-optimum conditions on a day like this is the most important battle.”
The Blue Devils followed the new game plan perfectly, showing a 1-5 spread of just 26 seconds. Only 14 more seconds elapsed before Mt. Lebanon’s final two runners crossed the line as the 2011 champions returned to the top spot with 97 points.
Todd Gunzenhauser led the way for Mt. Lebanon, placing 10th in 17:01. Junior Ian Braun was next in 17th at 17:11, followed by seniors Patrick Quirk (20th, 17:14), Evan Hatton (21st, 17:14) and Sam Hughes (29th, 17:27).
“Todd Gunzenhauser is the third runner from his family, his brother Rad is currently running quite well for William & Mary and Todd's older sister is a senior running for our girls team,” Agostinella said of his top finisher. “Todd is the child of two running parents, as well. He is a sophomore and is developing into a spectacular runner.”
Altoona Area claimed third with 166, while Mars Area was next with 280 and Seneca Valley had 284.