They have eyed each other warily from afar as each has made its way to the rematch at Saturday's PIAA Championships in Hershey.
A year ago, the Cardinal O'Hara boys and the West Chester Henderson boys finished tied for first in the Class AAA team scoring after each team's top five runners were counted. And for the second straight year, O'Hara lost out on the tiebreaker, the finish of each team's sixth runner. In 2011 it was North Penn that denied the Lions the team title in the same fashion.
Both have had stellar fall seasons.
O'Hara dominated on its way to a record-tying fifth straight title at the Delco Championships at Rose Tree Park. The Lions were unchallenged in capturing the team titles at the Catholic League meet and the District 12 meet, both at the Belmont Plateau course. Junior Kevin James, a returning All-Delco, led the way with first-place finishes in all three races.
Henderson, meanwhile, dominated the Ches-Mont League championships at Unionville and behind their star, Tony Russell, the Warriors cruised to the District One Class AAA title last week at the Lehigh University course.
North Allegheny brings a formidable group from the Pittsburgh area, so it is more than a two-team race. But it is an interesting little rivalry that has developed between two schools that didn't run against each other this fall, the Catholic League power from Delco and the Ches-Mont League runners from the county seat of Chester County.
"Anybody's beatable,' said O'Hara senior and returning All-Delco Jim Belfatto, who took a spill at the half-mile mark at last year's PIAA meet, then bravely got back in the race. If he doesn't fall, O'Hara probably wins. If he doesn't get up and keep running, the Lions have no shot.
As the Lions prepared for practice Tuesday, James sounded anxious to square off against Russell. The team with that "1' next to its name will be tough to beat.
"I'm going after him,' said James, who took a run at former O'Hara standout Steve Hallinan's Rose Tree mark at Delcos, but came up 21 seconds short. "The last time I faced him was in a mile race at the Henderson Distance Festival last spring. He beat me — barely.'
The course at Hershey is known to be tough. James likes it that way.
"The thing about that course is that it thins out the field,' James said. "After the first mile or two, the guys who can't keep up are done.'
Ultimately, the key to winning as a team in cross country is running together as much as possible.
"You have to stay as close as possible to the teammate in front of you,' said Belfatto, who is considering continuing his running and academic pursuits at either American University, Duquesne or Mount St. Mary's. "If Kevin's in front, I hope to be right behind him and the next guy has to stay as close as he can to me.
"Running in a tight pack, that's what's going to win you the race.'
So there will be a battle up front, but O'Hara, and Henderson, will be counting on its depth to pull it through. That includes Christian Donnelly, the third co-captain along with Kevin James and Belfatto, Drew Pastore, Nick Smart, Kevin James' younger brother Ryan, Jack Nolen and Rob Morro. All have stepped up and been counted at different times this fall.
The state meet won't be the end of the line for O'Hara. The Lions are headed for the Nike Northeast Regional meet at the end of November in Wappinger Falls, N.Y. and hopefully a return trip to the Nike Nationals in Portland, Ore., where they finished fifth a year ago.
As compelling as the O'Hara-Henderson matchup is, there is no shortage of subplots among Delco teams and runners.
The Penncrest boys qualified as a team and the Lions' dynamic combination of twins Chris and Matt Kazanjian will be looking to finish off their scholastic careers with a flourish. Chris finished third and Matt fifth at Lehigh.
The Bonner-Prendergast boys, led by Ryan Rastatter and the Sullivan brothers, Sean and Joe, will compete as a team in Class AA.
The O'Hara girls were preparing alongside the boys for a practice run Tuesday and Lions coach John McShay was hoping for a top-10 team finish in Class AAA for his young District 12 championship team. And if that meant O'Hara finished ahead of Strath Haven, that wouldn't be a bad thing from the Lions' point of view. Sophomore Grace Mancini finished first at the District 12 meet for the second straight year to lead the way for the Lions.
Strath Haven, led by Delco champion Abby Kennedy, edged the Lions on a sixth-runner tiebreaker at the Delco meet after the teams finished tied after five runners.
The top Delco female finisher in Class AAA at the District One meet was Springfield's Grace Galligan, continuing a strong postseason run that included a first-place finish in the Central League meet.
The Pennsylvania Independent School Athletic Association held its championships Saturday at the Belmont Plateau course and Episcopal Academy's Katherine Young finished fifth in the girls race with a time of 19:58.9.
Hong led the Churchwomen to a third-place finish in the team standings with a 106 total behind team champion Germantown Friends (55) and runnerup Germantown Academy. Hong's teammate Alexis Malmberg finished 11th in 20:48.2
Notre Dame's top finisher was Erin Mongeluzi, who was 24th in 21:54.6, as the Irish finished sixth (187) and Agnes Irwin's top finisher was Marin Bloise, who was 22nd in 21:47.8 as the Owls finished eighth (198).
On the boys side, Episcopal Academy's Ryan Quinlan finished 17th in 17:33.3 to lead the Churchmen to a fourth-place finish with 137 points behind champion Malvern Prep (29), runnerup Penn Charter (62) and third-place finisher Germantown Friends (71).
Haverford School finished eighth at 205 and the Fords were led by Alex Kim, who placed 22nd with a time of 17:47.6.
It didn't erase the sting of losing out to Malvern Prep for the Inter-Ac League golf championship, but Haverford School got a little revenge by edging Episcopal Academy by a shot for the team title at the Pennsylvania Independent School Athletic Association Tournament Saturday on a windswept North Course at the Stonewall Golf Links, site of the 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship.
Haverford School had high hopes of winning a fourth straight Inter-Ac title this fall, but the Fords were denied by a strong effort by Malvern Prep during the league's six mini-tournaments. The PISAA tourney resembled an Inter-Ac mini-tournament as the top five finishers in the team standings were all from the league.
Led by a couple senior stalwarts, Jake Van Arkel and reigning Daily Times Player of the Year Cole Berman, the Fords had a team total of 327, one shot better than Episcopal. Malvern Prep settled for third at 333. Van Arkel finished fourth with a 77 while Berman ended up in a tie for sixth with a 79. Otis Baker carded an 80 to finish in a tie for ninth.
Finishing out his junior season on a high note, Episcopal's Trey Croney captured individual honors with a 73. He finished a shot ahead of Malvern Prep senior Michael Davis, who was also the runnerup at the previous weekend's Bert Linton Inter-Ac League Tournament at Merion Golf Club's famed East Course.
Davis' teammate, Brendan Bacskai, finished off an outstanding junior season by taking third with a 76.
The tourney marked the final scholastic event for two great Inter-Ac players in Berman and Davis. Berman, who is headed for Georgetown next fall, owns a pair of Inter-Ac League individual titles and helped the Fords win three league crowns. Davis was the Inter-Ac League champion as a freshman in the spring of 2011, the last season the league played a spring schedule, and led the Friars to this year's team title.