BETHLEHEM — Determined to prove that last year's first ever district title wasn't a fluke or lucky break, the Pottsgrove boys cross country team made it two straight by capturing their second consecutive Class AA team title at the District 1 Cross Country Championships Friday at the Lehigh University course.
Led by third-place finisher Josh Toth (16:31), Derek Lopez (fourth, 16:35), Evan Cook (fifth, 16:43), John Garges (seventh, 16:54), and Brendan Wurtz (10th, 17:04), the Falcons held off hard-charging Holy Ghost Prep, which swept the Top 2.
The Firebirds' Daniel Connel won the AA boys race with a 16:22, with teammate Christian Kardiah second at 16:27. But the Falcons took five of the next eight spots to win it.
Next week the Falcons will be just as determined in trying to defend their PIAA Class AA title at Hershey.
Spring-Ford junior Paul Power proved again he is the area's premier individual runner this season as the highest Class AAA finisher, crossing 10th with a 15:36. And this time Power made sure he kept both sneakers on his feet, unlike a week ago in the PAC-10 Championships when he won the event after having one shoe come off and carrying it most of the way.
Perkiomen Valley senior Dave Garton was the area's only other boys Class AAA qualifier to states, crossing 39th with a 16:12. Twice a PIAA qualifier in track in the 800 meters, Garton had his mind set on also making it, at least once, in cross country and this was his last chance.
Along with the Pottsgrove team in AA, Upper Perkiomen's Jake Keiper advanced to the PIAA Championships, placing sixth.
Suffering from a lingering ailment that doctors can't seem to pinpoint, Methacton standout Kara Steinke led the Class AAA girls, crossing 14th with an 18:35, but 10 spots behind her fourth place last year. Steinke will move on the states, as she has her entire high school career.
Boyertown junior Emily Schumaker is also returning to states, crossing 44th with a 19:11.
And Owen J. Roberts senior Jill Weston snatched up the last AAA girls state qualifying spot at 46th, with a 19:12.
Upper Perkiomen junior Rachel Landis was the area girls lone state qualifier in AA, placing 13th with a 20:22.
The Pottsgrove boys success is all built around their team philosophy. Pulling along the rest of the team is more important for the Falcons' front runners than going for the individual win. That's how it was last year, that's how it is this season.
"I just figured, it's my senior year, I just wanted to leave my mark here,' said Toth, the first Falcon across. "We had a plan from when we started. Right after PAC-10's (when they failed to repeat as PAC-10 champs, losing to Methacton), we got our heads back in the game and into this race today. And we did really well as a team.
"Holy Ghost, they are tough. We knew it was going to be a really close race. We like to wait until the middle of the race and then we put on the last gas in the tank. The guys last year left us a foundation for us to build on. We filled the shoes that needed to be filled, had a great season. A little shaky at PAC-10's, but districts was our main goal.'
"It was all team,' said Lopez, barely able to talk because of a bad case of laryngitis. "The team was all heart today, all about who wanted it more. And we wanted it more. Since last year, we wanted to repeat and do it again. And that's what we did. Not just for us, but for our teammates, for our school, and for our friends.'
And the younger ones, like sophomore Wurtz, have also already bought into the system. Wurtz was the one who sealed the team win, fighting it out to finish 10th.
"Once I passed their number five guy, and then passed our number five, I knew that it was all up to me,' Wurtz said. "I had to pass their (Holy Ghost) number four to win it. It was definitely the hardest I ever tried. I gave it all I had, ran for the other (Falcons) six.'
"Great race,' said Falcons veteran coach Larry Rechtin. "The kids were awesome. They stuck to the race plan. Holy Ghost Prep had a number of runners ahead of us in the middle of the race. But our kids just stuck to the plan and slowly reeled them in. Brendan Wurtz grabbing those two kids at the very end over the last 150 meters was amazing. That was incredible.
"This gives us new life and the opportunity to get back to where we were last year. This was our goal at the beginning of the season, to get through the district meet, get to the state meet and try and defend our title at the state meet. Now we have that opportunity.'
For Power it was a huge step up from his 39th-place finish last year.
"It was a really good race,' Power said. "I was just trying to stay with the lead pack because I knew I wouldn't have a very strong kick at the end. I got out-kicked by about five kids. But I ran what had been my goal with both time and place. I wanted to run just around 15:30 (he ran a 15:36), was a little slower than that, but I'm OK with that. I wanted to finish just anywhere in the teens, and was really surprised how high up I was in the middle part of the race when I was fourth. They just had a stronger kick at the end. But it's a great result for me.'
For the Vikings' Garton, it was a satisfying finish to reach states in cross country for the first time.
"I just felt good today,' Garton said. "I felt fast and healthy; everything went well. That's what I wanted to happen, that was the plan all year — making states. Coming in I thought, this is either the last cross country race I run or I make states. So I just put myself in position to run as fast as I could.'
Last year Keiper also qualified for states but he broke his leg and couldn't run, left to hobble around at Hershey on crutches instead.
"I was a little disappointed I didn't get to run on the Hershey course last year, so this year I really wanted to make sure that I go and see what I can do on that course,' Keiper said. "I really wanted to get Top 5 here today. I was going back and forth with Evan Cook from Pottsgrove. And I got sixth. But I'm still pleased with that.'
For Steinke to slip back to 14th from her fourth place last year didn't come as a shock considering how she has been feeling for the last three weeks. She knew at the PAC-10 Championships last week that something was wrong health-wise, yet won the PAC-10 girls title for the fourth time despite not feeling her usual self. It only got worse in the week since.
"I'm having a lot of health issues right now,' Steinke said. "We don't really know what it is. Doctors don't know what's happening. I'm having almost like fainting spells whenever I race. My chest starts tightening up, I lose feeling in my arms and legs. Toward the end of the race, my eyesight starts to go. And lately when I'm finishing I'm near fainting or fainting.
"When I went to the doctor I found out that I was a little iron-deficient right now. But he thinks there more to it. It's very frustrating. Obviously, I wanted to be at my peak at the end of the season. I'm just trying to get through it. And the best competition is in our district, and the wind was very, very bad today. The first mile was very cold wind in your face. If I felt 100 percent, I would be very disappointed. I'm just happy I was able to finish the race.'
The girls ran first and did have a much stronger and colder wind than the boys, who started their races at 11 a.m.
Boyertown's Schumaker was troubled by that wind, too. She finished 34th last year, and it hurt to slip back some spots. She was on pins and needles worrying if she would return to states.
"I don't know what it was today,' Schumaker said. "I just think the emotions were going like crazy. The start was a lot more intense this year. That gradual up-hill at the middle of the race was a lot tougher than I remember. The wind was really bad. And we didn't run the Paul Short Invitational because it got canceled. Running that on this course is very crucial for us. For anybody I think.'
The Paul Short was cancelled three weeks ago because of the excessive heat. On that day temperature had dropped to freezing cold.
"I want to make states again with all my heart, do so much better than last year,' Schumaker said.
And when the qualifiers were finally posted, which seemed like hours later, she got her wish.
Upper Perk junior Landis is the area's lone AA girls state qualifier, crossing 13th with a 20:22.
"I'm pretty happy with my finish. I felt good today,' Landis said. "I was going for it; run good, run happy. Going on to states, that's nice too. It's not my best time, but my best finish (at districts). In previous years I came in 30-something, so I'm happy with it.'
Pottsgrove's top girl runner Dyani Hairston just missed qualifying, crossing 18th with a 20:48.
"I felt very good at the end, so I guess that means I did my best,' Hairston said. "Last year I was somewhere in the 40s and my time was 21:50. So I think I improved a lot.'
And she is only a sophomore and sure to be back.
Methacton's Tom Duff was the newly-crowned PAC-10 boys champions' highest finisher at 45th (16:15), missing states by just one. Sophomore Jeff Kirshenbaum, the Warriors rising star, learned the hard way just how tough that Lehigh course is, crossing 71st. The Warriors team were the area's highest AAA team finisher at 11th (379 points) ... W.C. Henderson won the AAA team title (60), holding off Conestoga (173) and Council Rock North ... The Owen J. Roberts girls were the area's highest girls AAA finishers at 17th (507), followed closely by Perkiomen Valley in 18th (554) ... Unionville won the girls AAA team title (39), with Unionville's Courtney Smith the AAA race winner (17:18) ... Pennsbury took second in the AAA girls team standings (56), ahead of C.B. East (163) ... Veronica Wheeler, of Nazareth Academy, won the girls AA title (19:04), while Gwynedd-Mercy won the AA girls team title (59), ahead of Nazareth (71) ... The Pottsgrove girls were the area's highest AA finisher at seventh (188).
Follow Rosemarie Ross on Twitter @RoseRoss31