It was an unusual year and certainly an unusual format for a championship, but Julia O’Brien, the winsome senior from Delone Catholic, finally has her state cross country medal.
O’Brien, who was competing in her third consecutive PIAA Cross Country Championship, placed 20th in the Class A race held Saturday on the Parkview Course in Hershey to earn state honors.
Meanwhile, Gettysburg yearling Winter Oaster, who was second in the YAIAA Championships two weeks ago, gained valuable experience with her first trip to states, placing 41st in the 3A race.
Due to concerns for Covid-19, race officials changed the format of the meet to something none of the runners had ever seen before. Each class of runners was essentially divided into four races, in order to de-densify each class’s competition. The teams from Districts 1-6 would run in the first wave, teams from 7-12 in the second wave, individual runners from 1-6 in the third wave, and the final individuals from 7-12 in the final wave.
The unfamiliar format generated four waves in each class of 20-30 runners, started 15 minutes apart. As each class had about half the runners of normal years, it was more difficult to qualify for states than ever. And, as it turned out, the setup played into the strength of O’Brien.
“I think the format benefitted me,” she said. “Last year I got boxed in and could not go anywhere. With fewer runners I was able to move around and just run. I knew my wave would be the most competitive, and I knew if I could keep up with the top girls I would be alright.”
While the races in the Class A team waves were competitive, the times were not blistering by any means. O’Brien knew those times before she started, and knew that she would definitely be in the hunt for the elusive state medal.
“Everything went the way we wanted it to go,” said Delone coach R.C Zinn. “Julia ran the first mile pretty hard, and then she executed everything to perfection. I really think the format worked in her favor. After first two waves (the team races) I was excited because the times were not that fast. I knew she had a shot after seeing that.”
O’Brien’s strategy was to go out conservatively to give herself more at the finish. However, she fairly flew in the first mile on Saturday, going through the mark in 18th place at 6:14. That is faster than she wanted to go, and may have been cause for concern, because once that energy is spent, it is difficult to get it back. Fortunately, the clock posted at the mile mark was not set up yet, so she did not see her time. Coach Zinn knew her time, and judiciously told her she was right on pace.
“Her first mile was way too fast,” Zinn said, “so I just told her when she came through that she was right on the time she wanted, so she wouldn’t feel scared. Julia is a good self-motivator. She can run well without anybody racing right with her.”
As the race went on, O’Brien worked well over the hills in the second mile and positioned herself in the top 12, preparing for a strong finish. As she gathered for her final kick with about 1500 meters to go, she passed Braetan Peters from Annville-Cleona, who won the District 3 race last week. Knowing she was doing well and feeling like she had a lot left, O’Brien rolled the last 1,000 meters, moving up to seventh, where she finished in 21:33. With one wave race to go, she was in ninth place.
“I had a burst light a fire from somewhere and I had the energy to take it to the end,” O’Brien said. “Running is such a mental game. For me I was trying to hold myself back a little bit and save some energy for the hills in the second mile. It definitely helped that Coach said I was right on my pace at the mile. But whatever the pace, I will always keep pushing.”
As long as 16 runners did not beat her time in the final wave, O’Brien would finish in the top 25 and win a medal. Overall, she placed 20th, which is the highest place a Delone runner has ever finished at states, making her the first Delone medalist.
O’Brien was also the top finisher from District III.
York Catholic, which narrowly beat Delone at districts to claim the one team qualifying spot, had three runners come down with Covid last week. Unfortunately, they had only three girls run and could not score as a team.
Shenango’s Carmen Medvit, who was fifth in 2018 but did not compete at states last year, ran a superb race to grab the individual title with a time of 20:13.
“I told Julia before the race that this is your last high school cross country race, and what my coach Scotty Watt told me, you are at the top of mountain, so enjoy the view,” Zinn said. “She said she started crying after I walked away from her, but she said she was motivated. She’s not naturally a great runner, it’s her hard work and guts and will.”
Each runner and coach were entitled to just four passes to give to friends and family to watch, then they were required to leave the site. O’Brien’s coaches gave their passes to her, so she invited the whole Delone team to the meet. The Squirettes, while not running the race, ran all over the course to cheer O’Brien on.
Such is the Delone running family.
“It was great having them out there,” O’Brien said. “They were definitely the loudest fans on the course. They moved to different places on the course, which was nice and such good motivation. The organizers of the meet kept everyone safe. I am just so glad we could have a season.”
In the 3A race, it was all about experience. Winter Oaster, having run under 19 minutes in each of her last two races, had her bubble burst a bit, but had a fine race, placing higher than any Gettysburg girl since Stephanie Yingling placed 32nd in 1993.
“Place-wise, to be 41st in all of Pennsylvania is quite an accomplishment,” said Gettysburg coach Michael Beegle, “especially for her first year. The meet was a great experience for her. It was such a tough race, with only 25 girls in her section.”
In that section, Oaster placed 12th, but once the results from all four waves were in her time of 20:42 placed her 41st, 29 seconds from a state medal. There will be other chances for the budding star.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Oaster said. “Obviously I wanted to get a medal today, but it didn’t work out that way. This was definitely a learning year for me. Every second and every place matters. You have to just give it everything you have and then you just have to be happy with that.”
Because of Covid concerns, runners were not allowed on the course ahead of the race to preview it. For those who had run the challenging course before, they had a distinct advantage. While Oaster got out well in 6:15 for the first mile, that was only the 53rd-fastest mile split of all four waves. It was then that the hills appeared, and she did not have any real idea of what they would be like. As it turned out, they took a lot out of her.
“It was tough to run a course I have never run or seen before,” Oaster said. “It was hard to know how to go out, and really know what my splits should be. I didn’t know anyone in my race to try to gauge off of. I tried to go out conservatively, but the pack went out really fast. I tried to hold back, but went out faster than I wanted to.”
While Parkview was easily the most difficult course Oaster has run, she stayed competitive, finishing strong. As she recovered from the hills section, she hung on and raced well with the runners around her. The distinctive season ended with a flourish, and it felt like it had just begun.
“Everything about the day was new to her,” said Beegle, whose team won the YAIAA-2 title for the third consecutive year. “The hills were new to her, and she didn’t know where they were going to be. It was definitely the toughest course she has run. She went out very fast and got where she needed to be. It was a great season, but it was such a whirlwind. We had 7-9 meets to prepare, with no big meets, and then these last three weeks were kind of thrown at us. But we are just so thankful we were able to run.”
North Allegheny repeated its state title from last year, scoring 59 points. Close behind was State College and West Chester Henderson. Mia Cochran from Moon Area repeated as well, running 18:28 for the win. She was followed by three District 3 runners, who put in a good showing.
Caryn Rippey of Wilson ran the race of her life, placing second (18:46), and Margaret Carroll, YAIAA and D3 champion from Northeastern, placed third (19:01). Freshman Claire Paci of Greencastle-Antrim grabbed fourth place (19:08). It appeared that the times on the Parkview course were about a minute or more slower than runners had been hitting all season.
With two of the top high school runners in the country graduating, Olivia Haas of Blue Mountain (4th in 2019) took advantage, winning the girls’ AA race in 19:56, eight seconds ahead of Lauren Trapani of Warrior Run. Trapani’s Defenders captured the team title, scoring just 40 points and finishing ahead of perennial state contender Central Cambria (77 points).
For the boys, Colton Sands of Penns Valley overcame an early-season injury and repeated his individual Class A title from last year, winning the race in 16:42. However, the Rams could not reproduce last year’s team championship, finishing 30 points behind champion Jenkintown (44 points). Jenkintown, up from third place last year, placed three runners in the top ten to take the title.
Lewisburg was able to repeat as state champions in 2A, made easier by the move of York Suburban up to AAA. Lewisburg scored a solid 56 points, ahead of Central Cambria (72) and YAIAA and District 3 champion Kennard-Dale (81). Gary Martin of Archbishop Wood won easily in 16:07.
In 3A competition, North Allegheny was able to jump ahead of the two District 1 teams that beat it last year, winning the title with 49 points. The Tigers finished comfortably ahead of LaSalle College and Downingtown West. Though both teams scored 76 points, LaSalle placed second based on a tiebreaker. Brady Bigger of State College ran 16:07 to win a close race over Hatboro-Horsham’s Devon Comber (16:10). YAIAA champion Cole Adams of York Suburban placed seventh in 16:33 in his first state race at the 3A level.