MARPLE — Kevin James wanted to be a sprinter. Cardinal O'Hara boys cross country coach Tom Kennedy is grateful Greg "Rock' Thomas Sr., the man who coached James at St. Joseph's School in Collingdale, convinced his young pupil to give the distance events a try.
"I won a couple of races and realized it was fun,' James said. "I decided to keep doing it.'
Grace Mancini's entry into the world of cross country was a little different. The sophomore from O'Hara went out for the team at St. Pius X in Broomall as a first-grader because her best friend at the time wanted to try out.
"We did everything together,' Mancini said.
He friend lasted about a year, Mancini said. Mancini is still going strong.
James and Mancini may have started out differently, but their career paths have led to the same place: being named the top runners in the county and among the best in the state.
James, a junior, and Mancini are the first athletes from the same school to earn Runner of the Year honors from the Daily Times and head up the All-Delco cross country team since O'Hara's Katie Kelly and Greg Thomas Jr. in 2004.
James and Mancini are joined on the All-Delco team by O'Hara teammates Jim Belfatto, Nick Smart, Olivia Arizin, Amy Kelly and Maura Lyons. Also on the first team are twin brothers Chris and Matt Kazanjian of Penncrest, David Fowler from Penncrest, Connor Holm of Radnor, Abby Kennedy from Strath Haven, Courtney Naser of Haverford and Grace Galligan from Springfield.
James, Mancini, Belfatto, Chris Kazanjian and Kelly are repeat selections. Arizin and Lyons are freshmen.
The All-Delco team is selected by the Daily Times after consultation with county coaches.
James is the seventh runner from Cardinal O'Hara to earn the county's top honor since 2000. He joins an impressive list that includes Dan Savage (2011 and 2012), Ed Buck (2006), Greg Thomas (2004 and 2005), Steve Hallinan (2001, 2002 and 2003) and Sean Duffy (2000).
Mancini is the first private school athlete and the first from Cardinal O'Hara to earn Runner of the Year honors since Kelly in 2004.
And while their personalities may be different — James is outgoing, while Mancini has to know people better before she opens up — they both possess the same inner drive that every runner needs to be great.
James is a beast. Just ask Bonner-Prendergast All-Delco Will McDermott, who's a freshman at Widener. James and McDermott had epic duels in the 3,200-meter run last season.
"I just don't like to lose,' James said.
Give some credit to his teammates and former teammates for helping James hone his competitive desire. You can't help but want to be a champion when you have to go against the likes of two-time Runner of the Year Dan Savage, two-time All-Delcos Ernie Pitone and Jim Belfatto, as well as All-Delcos Chris Pastore and Smart.
"Working out with Dan and Ernie all the time made me even more competitive because we were always going at it,' James said. "We really pushed each other. It's the same with Jim Belfatto and Nick.'
James has blossomed into one of the top cross country and distance runners in the state because of it. A first-team all-state selection, James was first at the Bulldog and Briarwood invitationals, won the Delco, Catholic League and District 12 Class AAA championships and was fourth in the PIAA Class AAA championships. With James leading the way, O'Hara won the Delco, Catholic League and District 12 Class AAA titles, and finished fourth at the state meet after back-to-back second-place finishes on tie breakers.
James won the Catholic League title with a blistering time of 15 minutes, 45.26 seconds. That was less than two seconds off the meet record time of 15:44 set by Hallinan in 2003, but Tom Kennedy noted that the course is 110 meters longer than in previous years.
That effort paced O'Hara to its fourth consecutive league title with a championship record 16 points. James will lead the way Saturday as the Lions try to qualify for the Nike Nationals for the second straight year in the regional championships at Bowdoin Park in Wappingers Falls, N.Y.
"People make comparisons to Greg Thomas and it's a good comparison,' Tom Kennedy said. "Guys like Greg and Steve Hallinan were known for their toughness and Kevin is as tough as they come. Guys who beat Kevin have to go through some pretty painful places to get there.'
Mancini is just as tough.
"She just wants to win,' O'Hara coach John McShay said. "She wants to win every race she's in. And she's a fast runner. She just wears people down. Her best years are ahead of her. I can see her running the 10,000 in college. That's the kind of drive and stamina she has. She's very strong and very driven.'
She burst onto the scene as a freshman a year ago and has developed into one of the top distances runners in the state.
After a second-place finish at the Delco Championships, Mancini went out and won the Catholic League and District 12 Class AAA individual titles for the second year in a row to lead the Lions to the team title in both events. She followed that up with a 17th-place finish at the PIAA Class AAA championships to lead the Lions to a sixth-place finish. The Catholic League title was the 15th overall for the Lions and the first since 2009. O'Hara followed that with its second straight District 12 title a week later.
"I just like to run and I like the feeling I get when we win,' Mancini said.
Mancini and James share another quality. They keep their emotions in check.
"I used to get nervous last year, but at this point, I've run so many races that it doesn't affect me,' Mancini said. "To me, it's just another race.'
James has the same approach.
"I see other people freaking out before a race, but I just try to stay relaxed,' James said. "I'll mess around with my teammates and it that keeps me calm. I don't run as well when I'm nervous. I'm a better runner when I'm relaxed.'
Staying relaxed makes James that much tougher. The same goes for Mancini.