There was nothing new about the Marion Center girls’ and Indiana boys’ cross country teams winning the team titles at the Indiana County Championships.
If anything, the Stingers and the Indians winning titles is old news, but in doing so again Thursday, both teams achieved something that hadn’t been done yet at the IUP South Campus Course.
Paced by a healthy Alyx Cornetto, the Marion Center girls claimed the top five individual places to run away with the title for the sixth consecutive year, and it marked the first time in coach Chris Peters’ two-decade tenure the Stingers swept the top five spots at the county meet.
“I actually didn’t know that we took the top five places,” Cornetto said. “We always run together as a team. It’s always about six or seven of us just going on a road run, and we’re always together, we always work together and push each other.
“I don’t think I necessarily expected it. I hoped because we like to try not to have a big gap between our first and our fifth. I definitely thought it was possible.”
Meanwhile, Indiana senior Kendall Branan came from behind to win the boys’ race and set the meet and course records with a time of 16 minutes, 37.3 seconds while leading the Indians to their fifth straight team title.
It was Branan’s second individual title, having also won the meet as a sophomore in 2017.
“It’s special because there’s seven schools here and to run this well at the county (meet), it feels pretty good,” Branan said.
After battling injuries each of the past two seasons, Cornetto is finally healthy, and she looked it.
The Stingers’ senior led wire-to-wire in winning the girls’ race with a time of 21:30.4, freshman Reagen Ryen was second in 21:49.5, and senior teammate Cherise Schultz was third (21:55.0). Lilly Ryer (fourth, 22:10.6) and another freshman, Maggie Hood (fifth, 22:21.6), rounded out the top five.
“We’ve never had the top five,” coach Chris Peters said. “It was really gratifying to see all of our girls work so hard and really take pride in not coming in behind anybody with a different color jersey on. That’s what our top five (runners) talked about before the race and said, ‘We’ll race each other, but we’re not going to let anybody in another color beat us,’ and that was their attitude toward this race all week and they came out and they did it, and I’m just enormously proud of them.”
“I think coming into it, we knew that we had a shot at getting the top five,” Schultz said, “but we all raced and it just happened. I think it gives us a good state of mind going into the next couple meets, Heritage, districts and whatever happens after districts. It’s a good confidence booster in a way, but we all know we still have to work really hard to get where we want to be.”
Where the Stingers eventually want to be is atop the podium at the PIAA Championships again, like they did last season when they won the Class 1A state title. But unlike most observers outside their program, the Stingers aren’t looking that far ahead just yet.
“We try to just take it meet by meet,” Schultz said. “Obviously, we think about the future, but we’re using each meet as a stepping stone to get us to where we finally want to be. ... But it’s hard sometimes, especially when everyone is talking about it.”
Like Cornetto, Branan dealt with an injury at last year’s meet that likely prevented him from winning the meet three years in a row. Healthy again, he smashed the previous meet and course records of 16:56.50 by nearly 20 seconds.
Indiana’s top five runners all finished in the top seven. Joel Beckwith was second with a time of 17:06.2, Tucker Davis was fourth (17:42.7), Julian Yerger was fifth (18:16.3) and Isaac Roadman was seventh (18:30.8).
“It means a lot to us to go 1-2,” Beckwith said. “It was amazing.”
Marion Center’s Hunter Armstrong, who held the lead for the first mile of the 3.1-mile race, finished third (17:18.7), and United’s Gavin Cameron was sixth (18:21.3).
Even though Branan and Beckwith fell behind Armstrong early in the race, they didn’t panic. It was part of their strategy.
“They know they can’t go out super-fast because if we do, we found that we’re took slow at the other end,” Indiana coach Lisa Kinter said. “So to be patient and wait to make a move — that takes a lot — to be patient and wait when you see somebody that far in front of you, that’s rough. That’s what we’ve been working on all season with Kendall. And Joel was right behind him. ... Running very smart — smart runners, both of them.”
“I was very surprised,” Beckwith said. “I know Hunter Armstrong is a very good runner and I’m just really happy that I had a really good day today. I kept pushing the pace and it really worked out for me. I had a really good kick at the end, which really helped me.”
Like the Marion Center girls, the Indians have bigger goals than winning the county title. Coming off last year’s second-place finishes at the WPIAL and PIAA Championships, they are hoping to do one better this season.
“We’re really hoping that we can be the WPIAL team champions and win the state meet this year,” Branan said. “We’ve been trying to do that for four years now, so we’re hoping to do it this year.”