The Palmyra girls' cross country team will be running for a three-peat Saturday at South Hills Park in the 2012 Lebanon County Cross Country Meet. Deep and loaded, the two-time champion Cougars return six of the top seven finishers from last September's race.
"We always love to come to the county meet," Palmyra coach Barb Mellinger said. "It's the most downhill meet we run in and that generally results in lower times."
Mellinger returns the same pack of striders that went on to win the Mid-Penn Conference title and District Three bronze last autumn. They topped off 2011 with the school's first-ever trip to the Class AAA PIAA State Championships, capturing a top-10 finish. Now they're back for another lap.
"I do have high expectations, but I don't go there with them. I'm a big proponent of one meet at a time," explained Mellinger.
Senior Laura Duquette enters Saturday's 10:30 a.m. start trying to become the first girl to win back-to-back county crowns since Elco's Kayleigh Perry took three straight from 2007-09. Last year, Duquette clocked a 19:44, crossing ahead of teammates Maria Tukis (second, 20:09), Mariah Ricci (fourth, 20:42), Olivia Farabaugh (fifth, 20:53), Ashley Cypher (sixth, 20:57) and Devin Strynkowski (seventh, 21:04).
"We have five that are consistently close, they're always switching off," added Mellinger, in her 10th season guiding the boys' and girls' programs at Palmyra.
Another switch - the PIAA shifting girls' soccer from spring to fall - has significantly improved Palmyra's opportunity for a podium sweep. Cedar Crest's Haleigh Echard finished third as a sophomore, but elected to spend her junior year on the soccer field this fall.
Without the 2010 county champ Echard, the orange and black could have a clear path to the medal stand with seniors Ricci, Farabaugh, Cypher, junior Strynkowski and sophomores Salvo and Tukis in the mix.
"It's going to be an interesting year," said Cedar Crest coach Brandon Risser. "I can't wait to see the Palmyra girls and (defending boys' champion) Annville-Cleona."
As a team, the Palmyra girls are off to a 4-0 start in the Keystone Division, which includes Tuesday's satisfying 22-39 triumph over Hershey at Susquehanna Township's Veterans Memorial Field. Palmyra has posted a combined 12-2 record over the past two years. The only setbacks came at the hands of the Trojans (2011) and Lower Dauphin (2010).
"It's highly a possibility. That was the hardest dual- or tri-meet (of the season)," Mellinger said of an undefeated finish. "We hope to achieve higher goals than last year or 'up the ante.'"
Theoretically, the path back to
"Our goal is to win the AA Districts, and beyond that, we'll focus on when we get there," said Mellinger.
Saturday's county meet kicks off at 10:25 a.m. with a 100-meter mascot race, which will serve as a prelude to the varsity competition. The Cedar Crest Falcon prevented the Northern Lebanon Viking from winning back-to-back mascot titles a year ago.
The following are capsule summaries of Lebanon County's girls' cross country teams for 2012.
Head coach: Sue Sutcliffe, 31st season
Current record: 1-5 overall
2011 Record: 6-15 overall (5-5 in L-L Section Two)
Graduation losses: Emily White, Sophia Safford
Top returnees: Tiarra Helman, jr., Shelby Dove, soph., Jill Shanaman, jr., Monica Hilbert, jr.
Promising newcomers: Melissa Casciotti, Rachel Brown, Addie Davies, Madison Dietz, Angela Fair, Schylar Moyer, Emily Rooney.
2012 Outlook: The Dutchmen have sported a 20-43 mark over the past three seasons with White and Safford setting the pace. A-C finished 17th at the L-L Meet a year ago and is hoping to improve this time around. Dove is the frontrunner.
On Monday, she led the way for A-C in Monday's tri-meet in Lancaster, collecting a top-10 finish in 23:22. Helman, Casciotti and Fair all joined her in the top 20.
Head coach: Brandon Risser, 8th season
Current Record: 4-3 overall
2011 Record: 18-3, (7-3 in L-L Section One)
Graduation/other losses: Katrina Diehm, Amanda Kerbis, Adrienne Yoder, Megan Doris, Haleigh Echard, Jessica Zavadak, Rebecca Robins.
Top returnees: Erica Bachman, sr., Olivia Hess, sr., Michelle Kiss, soph.
Promising newcomers: Kyla Waldron, fr., Haley Shiner, fr., MacKenzie Shiner, fr., Gwyneth Davis, fr., Brenna Rubinstein, jr., Briana Neidig, Mariah Kauffman, Britny Holzman, Emily Bragg.
2012 Outlook: Moving soccer from the spring to fall really impacted the Falcons. Along with Echard, an annual PIAA qualifier, Cedar Crest also lost junior Jessica Zavadak and sophomore Rebecca Robins to the girls' futbol team.
Crest claimed seventh at the L-L Meet in 2011 after posting a 44-19 record in the past three seasons. They will rely on a crop of stellar freshmen to try to keep the winning tradition alive.
"In all honesty, these girls are doing a fabulous job of taking ownership of the team," said Risser. "They are way ahead of where we expected them to be. I'm really excited."
With Hess and Bachman, a four-year participant, leading the way, youngsters like MacKenzie Shiner are expected to close the gap with Palmyra. Crest came in as a distant runner-up to the Cougars at the last two county gatherings.
"They've looked in the mirror and really stepped up," Risser said of his underclassmen. "MacKenzie Shiner showed everyone, including herself and the coaches, that she's going to be a very good cross country runner by winning Tuesday."
MacKenzie Shiner took the checkered flag in Tuesday's five-team dual meet at Conestoga Valley, beating the field by more than 30 seconds.
Head coach: Charles Gerberich, fourth season
Current record: 2-4 overall
2011 record: 6-15 overall, (5-5 in L-L Section Two)
Graduation/Other losses: Rachel Baker, Vanessa Miller, Brittney Shaak, Maddie Noonan, Emily Harpold
Top Returners: Abigail Dundore, soph., Maggie Shaak, sr.; Kayla Harnish, jr.
Promising Newcomers: Katie Gerber, soph, Katelyn Gulotta, sr., Mindy Hill.
2012 Outlook: Like most smaller schools, the soccer shift also took a toll in Myerstown, go figure. The Raiders lost a trio of eligible runners in Brittney Shaak, Maddie Noonan and Emily Harpold. To boot, Baker was a four-year standout for Gerberich.
"We only have six girls on the roster," said Gerberich. "And losing five of our top eight girls, it's going to be hard to replace them. If somehow, we could get five girls to qualify for districts that would be awesome."
Dundore will anchor the Raiders, who are two years removed from their jump up to Class AAA and departure of Kayleigh Perry. Dundore and Maggie Shaak both registered top-eight finishes in Tuesday's five-team dual meet in Lancaster.
"Don't want to put too much pressure on Abby Dundore, but she has been working real hard and could impress throughout the season," added Gerberich.
Head coach: Dan Rau, fourth season
Current Record: 0-8 overall
2011 Record: 0-21 overall, (0-10 in L-L Section One)
Top returnees: Brittany Ulrich, soph.
Promising newcomers: Lauren Chambers, jr.
2012 Outlook: The struggles continue in the city as the Cedars only carry two girls on the roster. Junior Lauren Chambers joins up-and-coming Brittany Ulrich, who was literally a one-girl-team last season. Ulrich finished 14th at the county meet as a freshman, checking in at 21:41.
"We are once again attempting to build our girls' roster with very good athletes," Rau said of his two competitors. "With some strong runners at the junior high level, we should have a full team next year."
Head coach: Mark Opreska, second season
Current Record: 1-6 overall
2011 Record: 1-18 overall, (0-8 in L-L Section Two)
Graduation losses: Ashton Donmoyer; Krissy Reinhardt; Mikayla DiAngelis; Samantha Wolfe.
Top Returnees: Kayla Smith, jr.; Ricki Deeter, jr.
Promising Newcomers: Kaitlin Dolan, fr, Madisyn Breiner, fr, Charley Darkes, fr
2012 Outlook: Opreska enters his sophomore campaign with a limited number of weapons at his disposal. The Vikings feature just five runners on the squad.
"Our girls' team has never had the turnout of the boys' team, and with soccer's move to the fall, most prospective athletes have turned to other opportunities," said Opreska, who doubles as the Vikings' boys' and girls' track and field coach.
Smith, a junior, is the lone returner from last season's squad.
"Kayla is a strong runner and should be able to move on to the postseason," Opreska added. "But the freshmen have only run a few 5K races on their own over the summer and will have to deal with the transition up to the varsity level earlier than I would've liked."
Head coach: Barb Mellinger, 10th season.
Current Record: 4-0 overall
2011 Record: 8-1 overall, (5-1 in M-P Keystone Division)
Graduation losses: Hannah Galvan, Erica Mellinger.
Top returnees: Mariah Ricci, sr., Olivia Farabaugh, sr., Laura Duquette, sr., Ashley Cypher, sr., Devin Strynkowski, jr., Miranda Salvo, soph., Maria Tukis, soph.
Promising newcomers: Katie Kech, fr., Emily Bliemeister, fr.
2012 Outlook: The reigning Mid-Penn champions figure to be in the hunt again. They've steadily improved in each of the past two seasons, and this one should be no different. Hannah Galvan and Erica Mellinger were both four-year contributors, but there is more than enough talent returning to not miss a beat.