What’s the most important ingredient in winning a cross country team title? The shoes in which you run or the teammates that run alongside you?
At South Fayette, they would answer resoundingly “teammates” because the Lady Lions carried each other to victory in the PIAA championships. Even as one of their harriers lost their shoe 200 meters into the five-kilometer race, the Lions rallied and defeated their nearest competitor by a scant five points.
South Fayette captured the Class AA team title with 66 points. Northern finished runner-up with a 71 score and Warrior Run followed in third with 110 points.
The Lions celebrated their first state title in girls cross country because of the heroics of Hailey Poe and Steff Kozak.
Early in the race, a competitor stepped on Poe’s heel and the senior lost her shoe. She ran the next three miles through mud, grass and gravel shoeless on one foot. The senior finished 13th overall with a 20:22 time. Kozak, however, helped Poe negotiate her way to the finish line. The senior ran a “lifetime best time” of 20:23 and placed 14th overall.
“What an absolutely incredible story,” Joe Winans enthused. “As soon as it happened,” said the SF head coach of the shoe incident, “Hailey immediately started communicating with her teammates that she needed them to help her get through the remainder of the race and Steff stepped up big and virtually escorted Hailey through the course. They found strength in one another and kept pushing all of the way to the finish line.”
While Kozak’s eclipsed her previous personal record by over :20 seconds, Lauren Iagnemma continued her rise in cross country circles. The sophomore took third overall in the race. Her bronze-medal time was 19:22.
“Lauren ran an incredibly well-executed race,” Winans said. “It was relaxed and confident in the early stages and she moved up progressively in the second half against some very strong competition.”
While Marlee Starliper from Northern set the winning pace of 17:11, Angelina Gabriel kept the heat on Iagnemma. The SF freshman finished ninth overall with a 20:04 time.
“Angelina keeps testing her limits as a ‘front runner.’ By getting out aggressively in races, she’s starting to see just how strong she is,” Winans added.
The Lady Lions proved stronger than their stiffest competition because of their depth. Junior Emma Fleck and sophomore Gabby Baiano recorded 20:47 and 20:52 marks to place in the top 30. Sophomore Morgan Lukenich contributed a 21:16 time and 42nd place.
“The secret to our success was the collective team effort,” Winans said. “We always say that good teams run WITH each other, but great teams run FOR each other. Each one of the girls ran an inspired race to be the best that they could be for their team. It was a completely selfless effort from everyone.”
South Fayette received a similar effort on the boys side as the Lions secured seventh as a team with 194 points. Lewisburg and York Suburban tied for first place with identical 82 scores.
Zach Conner and Aaron Skrerbetz placed 15th and 17th overall with times of 16:59.4 and 17:03.0. Jake Borges (44th), Drake Simpson (58th), Roman Galioto (60th), Drew Whiteside (68th) and Zack Warchol (102nd) contributed to the scoring for the Lions.
“The boys team continued to impress me as the season went on. Pretty early on, we realized that we had a shot to finish in the top 3 at WPIAL’s and make the state meet,” explained Winans.
At the WPIAL championships, however, the Lions secured runner-up laurels. “A great accomplishment for this group,” said Winans.
Once out the district, Winans felt the Lions most certainly could be a top 10 club. So to finish seventh at the PIAA Championship, he said, “is an incredible achievement” because the boys finished 10th in the WPIAL only a year ago.
Overall, obviously, Winans is pleased with the program and in particular the girls championship.
“As a coach, I’m extremely proud of all of the boys and girls on this team,” he said. “They work incredibly hard and are great people, not just great runners,” he emphasized.
“A “full team effort” is something that we require for every race and to see our boys and girls do that on the biggest stage is extremely satisfying and rewarding. It gave me an incredible sense of pride and joy to see how happy our girls were upon winning the state title. It was a goal of ours for so long, I couldn’t be happier for them.”
South Fayette is not finished. The Lady Lions and five members of the boys squad are headed to New York for the Nike Cross Country Regional meet set for Nov. 30.
“I’ll be curious to see how we do there,” Winans said since South Fayette has never attended this meet before. “Three more weeks of training should be fun, but challenging,” he added of a season that already included 10 weeks of summer training followed immediately by the 12-week cross country season.