CROSS COUNTRY: Marion Center girls, Blairsville boys win Heritage Conference titles
MARION CENTER — Hannah Fulton fell seconds short of repeating as conference champ, but the Marion Center senior and her running mates did more than enough to secure another Heritage Conference girls’ cross country team title Thursday.
In the midst of a torrential downpour, Fulton placed second behind last year’s runner-up, Homer-Center’s Heather Paynter, to pace a clan of eight Marion Center runners who placed in the top 20 and propel the Stingers to their fourth straight conference championship.
Each of the Stingers’ top five runners placed in the top 15 and Marion Center finished with 28 points to win its 13th conference title in 14 years. Ligonier Valley (59) finished second for the second straight season.
Paynter finished with a time of 21 minutes, 1 second, and Fulton followed with a 21:15.
In the boys’ race, Blairsville identical twins Alex and Ryan Horchar placed first and second, respectively, to guide the Bobcats to the team title. The Bobcats’ top five runners each placed in the top 20. Blairsville finished with 35 points, and Marion Center took second with 51.
Alex Horchar crossed the finish line at 18:36, and Ryan Horchar followed at 18:43.
Although his team came up short on the boys’ side, Marion Center coach Chris Peters said he’ll continue to challenge his boys’ and girls’ teams at the onset of each season to aim for nothing less than conference titles on both sides.
“We have an expectation from the beginning of the year on that we’re going to win conference, and that’s our goal from the boys’ and girls’ sides,” Peters said. “But we bring a team concept to everything we do, so we look at those fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh runners, and we train them, and this is their goal, winning Heritage. The expectation of every runner, boy and girl, is to perform their best at Heritage.”
Unlike the Indiana County Meet, in which Paynter maintained a slight lead from the get-go on Fulton en route to a first-place finish, the lone runner on the Homer-Center girls’ team elected to take a more conservative approach in the race’s early stages.
Paynter remained at a safe distance behind Fulton for the first few minutes of the race, waiting until roughly a mile in to pass the Stingers’ team captain.
“I kind of stayed behind her, since this is her course,” Paynter said. “I pulled away from her a little bit around the first mile, and then around the second mile, I went too far up into the woods and made a wrong turn. Luckily everyone screamed at me, so I only lost a couple seconds. From there, I just got back on track and was able to pull away again.”
Heavy rain intensified as Paynter and Fulton circled the Marion Center High School baseball field late in the race. Paynter, a junior, then shifted into high gear and sprinted alone down the homestretch to seal her first conference title.
“She really made me work for it,” Paynter said of Fulton. “She’s such a great competitor, and it’s always very stressful and nerve racking going into any race with her. I really wanted this, so I trained for it, and I did everything I could. All the extra work paid off.”
Marion Center freshman Taya Whitfield (21:59) placed fourth to complement Fulton’s strong effort. The Stingers’ remaining top five runners were seventh-place finisher Bailey Cribbs (23:07), ninth-place finisher Kate Olson (23:16) and 13th-place finisher Alex Oterson (23:29).
“We kind of expected to win, but it was my first year, so I didn’t really know what to expect,” Whitfield said. “It feels really good to come in as a freshman and take fourth, especially knowing I helped my team win again. It just feels nice.”
In monsoon-like conditions, Penns Manor senior J.T. Horwat, who placed fourth in last year’s race, built an early lead on the Horchar twins, despite losing one of his shoes less than 400 meters into the race.
Horchar also fell face-first into a massive puddle as he came out of the woods, but still maintained a slight lead on the Horchar twins until about the two-mile mark.
That’s when Alex and Ryan Horchar made their moves and each essentially passed Horwat at the same time. The senior brothers then kept up a torrid pace in the last 1.1 miles of the 3.1-mile race — and each recovered from falls on the swamped course — to place first and second, respectively.
“They’ve pushed each other for four years … side by side, pretty much,” Blairsville coach Dan Cunkelman said. “Usually Ryan’s the one out in front, but Alex took the lead today, which was a little different. But Alex and Ryan have each improved and progressed over these four years, and they’ve actually been going back and forth more and more lately.”
Alex Horchar said he saw a shoeless Horwat struggling to maneuver through a rocky portion of the course, and he knew then to make his move.
“He started slowing down as he made it up that rocky hill,” Alex Horchar said. “You could tell he was hobbling up that hill when he was hitting those rocks, so right there was my chance to pass him.”
Horwat finished at 18:56, which was 58 seconds slower than his time from last year’s race. He admitted that he should have gone back for his shoe, especially considering the treacherous conditions.
“It killed me, especially coming down the hill. It was all gravel,” Horwat said. “I don’t know if it would have turned out any different, but I was shooting to win, and losing the shoe definitely killed me. Next time I need to tie my shoes tighter or maybe even tape them up.”
Along with the Horchar brothers, the Bobcats were powered by fifth-place finisher Derek Rocks (19:18), ninth-place finisher Austin McLean (19:50) and 18th-place finisher Ayrton Lamantia (20:25).
Cunkelman pointed out that Rocks, McLean and Lamantia were each also major catalysts in the Bobcats’ first-place team finish at the county meet last week.
“Derek really stepped up and did a great job. He gave us an outstanding effort to take fifth place,” Cunkelman said. “Austin didn’t have his best race, but he still did what he needed to do to get us where we needed to be. And Ayrton also stepped up and did a really nice job today. He was determined from start to finish here.
“These wins were really big for us because we’ve been second place at the county meet (and) second place at the conference meet for the last couple of years, and to finally pull it all together, and to do it as a team, it just feels really good.”