The WPIAL cross country championships will be different this year during the coronavirus pandemic.
There will be various flights, days and times for competition. Plus, the location has also changed.
White Oak Park in McKeesport will host the event Oct. 28 and Oct. 29.
One thing, however, remains the same.
“It’s still racing a 5K distance on a cross country course. Something we’ve done all season,” said Upper St. Clair head coach Doug Petrick.
For many, it will be their final race as the number of state qualifiers has been reduced.
Only the team champions in each division advance to the PIAA championships set for Nov. 7 at the Parkview Cross Country Course in the Hershey Giant Center Complex. There will also be seven nonteam qualifiers in each classification, except for Class AAA, which will have 10.
In the past, the top three teams and top 15 individuals advanced to states.
So the stakes are high.
“It is definitely a lot harder to qualify,” said Peters Township coach Tim Wu. “A lot of good teams and individuals will be left at home unfortunately.”
Wu said limiting qualifiers is happening in every district, not just the WPIAL. He said the WPIAL is, however, one of the best districts in the state.
“It’s as good if not better than District 1 which is a huge district,” Wu said.
North Allegheny and Seneca Valley are expected to dominate the competition.
The Tigers have won 29 boys titles since 1960 and 12 of the past 14. Seneca Valley interrupted the NA’s streak, winning championships in 2016 and 2017.
NA’s girls cross country team has won the past two titles.
South Fayette, which has moved up to Class AAA, has won the past three Class AA championships.
“While NA is always well put together and Seneca (Valley) is formidable from a team standpoint, we plan on sitting as close to the top as possible when all is said and done,” said SF head coach Joe Winans.
Individually, Mia Cochran from Moon is the defending WPIAL and PIAA champion.
Emily Carter from Bethel Park was the district bronze medalist and state runner-up a year ago.
Carter and her teammate, Jenna Lang, a freshman, should give Cochran a challenge along with Gina Bolla from Baldwin and Lauren Iagnemma from South Fayette.
Iagnemma was the Class AA bronze medalist in 2019. The junior finished 13th in the state.
“Lauren has a chance to grab one of the individual qualifying spots,” Winans said.
“As a team, expectations are to finish in the top three. We expect to have some good front running and a tight finish from our two through five runners. Like last year, we tend to get better and better with each race.”
Molly Maher and Claire Hoffman from Upper St. Clair are also other Class AAA runners to watch.
The South Fayette boys, like their female counterparts, won the section title. The Lions are expected to challenge NA, Butler and SV for the team title. The Lions boast a one-two punch of senior Aaron Skerbetz and sophomore Jake Borgesi.
“For the boys,” Winans said, “we expect to be a top four team. We’ve been racing with a lot of confidence in recent weeks and are looking to place our top four runners pretty high up.
“Individually,” he added, “Jake and Aaron will be in the hunt to pick up an individual qualifying spot.”
Peters Township’s Brett Kroboth and Mt. Lebanon’s Barak Asher as well as USC’s Ryan Sarkese and Robert Shontz are other runners to watch as they jockey for position against Butler’s top threats of CJ Singleton and Sage Varro.
Kroboth recently won the Washington County Coaches Cross Country Meet at Mingo Park. The sophomore posted a time of 16:46.70, some 34 seconds ahead of runner-up Doron Wudkwych from Canon-McMillan.
“I expect to see Brett in the running to qualify for the PIAA,” said Wu. “If he has a great race, it will happen. He put in the offseason training. I know it will be harder due to less qualifiers. My expectations are kids get their best race and perform with the best kids in our WPIALs.”
With the premium on qualifiers, coaches predict drama at the WPIAL championships.
“The district championships will have the same excitement,” Petrick said.
By splitting the field into two sessions, Winans said the WPIAL finals will have the feel of a “smaller” invitational, but the excitement will still be there.
“By limiting the number of qualifying teams and individuals to the state meet, I can see the level of competition being heightened,” Winans said. “However, there may be a number of runners that race a bit outside of themselves as a result. The teams and individuals that end up making it to the state meet will be the ones that find the best balance between matching the excitement of the day with executing a race that best tests the limits of their training.”