Seven area runners are one race away from competing on the national level.
Peters Township natives Mikayla and Elijah Eckenrode, Colton and Liam Ginsburg and Ryder Hawkins along with Canonsburg residents Ellie Maentz and Julie Lukasewicz are off to Buffalo, New York to compete Nov. 17 in the Region 2 Junior Olympic Championships.
The Top 25 finishers are guaranteed a spot in the national cross country championships set for Dec. 14 in Madison, Wis.
The racers, ranging in ages from 6 to 13, earned their berths in regionals during the Three Rivers Association’s Junior Olympic Championships held at Mingo Park. The Ginsburg brothers both took first places while Maentz, Hawkins and Mikayla Eckenrode finished in the Top 10.
Joshua Eckenrode is optimistic about the quintets chances of advancing to nationals. He serves as the track and field and cross country director at St. Louise de Marillac Elementary School in Upper St. Clair, where the runners compete.
“If they have a great race and should they not get hurt, Mikayla, Elijah, Colton, Liam and Ellie they all will be in the Top 15 if not Top 5,” he predicted.
Not only is Coach Eckenode going off times, he is betting on his runners because of their performances during their recent cross country season.
Ellie led the girls’ varsity to a first-place showing overall at the South Hills Invitational and a runner-up team performance at the Diocesan Cross Country Championships. Individually, the eighth-grader was the overall runner-up. She claimed five first-place finishes in school meets.
Mikayla led the JV girls to victory in the South Hills Invitational as well as the Diocesan JV runner-up trophy. She also placed second at the Bill Lennox Invitational at Slippery Rock University. The meet allows both public and private schools to compete.
Mikayla, along with her brother, Elijah, were national competitors last year. Both ran in the Junior Olympic Nationals in Reno in 2018. Elijah, 9, is a third-grade student while Mikayla, 11, is in fifth grade.
Colton won the Diocesan Championships by setting a course record. The 10-year-old, fourth-grade student led the STL developmental team to a runner-up showing. His brother, Liam was right on his heels. The 7-year-old, second grader is the No. 2 harrier in the STL developmental program.
Coach Eckenrode had high praise for the Ginsburg brothers.
“They love to compete,” he said. “They are also two of the humblest athletes that I have known in a long time.”
Of the seven harriers, Coach Eckenrode noted they are “truly a great group of kids that enjoy the sport of running.”
While he has been in charge of the program for three seasons, Coach Eckenrode hopes to see the team develop and the sport offered to more kids in the future. Because he has a “passion” for seeing kids who want to exercise and train, including those in the Kids of Steel program, he wants to continue facilitating the sport’s growth.
“There are so many distractions today that are available at early ages, that I feel getting the kids out to run and set goals to hit is so instrumental in keeping their minds fresh and their bodies active and healthy,” he said.
Coach Eckenrode embraces a healthy approach to instructing his charges. While he enjoys watching them excel, he also relishes their camaraderie.
“While our runners are so driven to compete, I enjoy watching them at the end of a hard race,” he said. “They circle back and are ready to cheer on their teammates and the other school’s runners to the finish line.”
Eckenrode also acknowledges each athlete has his or her own reason to run. However the goal for his 50-plus runners are realistic and attainable.
“Some of our athletes want to win a race. Others want to be able to run a mile without walking by the end of the season. There are some that just love the social aspect of running with their friends. Wherever each of our athletes fall in these categories, I’ll take it because I know that they are staying active and socializing without a phone in front of them and doing something that only takes a pair of shoes and a desire to go out and put one foot in front of another.”