BY JEFF FALK
Within the mentality of the pack there exists the concept of the ‘alpha male.’ Or in the case of the Palmyra girls, ‘the alpha female.’
The Cougars’ Maria Tukis and Shawn Wolfe of Annville-Cleona led by example at Saturday morning’s annual Lebanon County Cross Country Championships, contested on South Hills Park’s hilly 3.1 mile course.The examples they set were ones of excellence, determination and victory.
Their teammates just simply followed along.
Wolfe and Tukis won the boys’ and girls’ individual races, respectively, as well as the prestige that accompanies it. And in the process they each paved the way for their schools’ team championship.
“Yeah, I want to lead,” said Tukis, a sophomore who set the pace pretty much of the way. “I like to lead the pack. From the mental aspect, I just want to be out in front. I’m more of a pacer. We were able, as a group, to space ourselves.”
“Obviously we had a goal to win it as a team,” said Palmyra girls’ cross country coach Barb Mellinger. “But I also told them they should get an individual championship as well. We have five to eight girls who can go out. It (the individual title) could’ve been one of about five. But Maria’s been a consistent runner for us.”
“Shawn attacks the course,” said Annville-Cleona boys’ cross country coach Ben Wenger of Wolfe. “He starts out so fast. He wears down his competition physically and mentally. He pushes and then doubles his lead. And then it becomes Shaun against the clock. He’s a great guy. He’s great to have around.
“It’s a unique situation with Shawn and Mark (Bachman),” continued Wenger. “They’re our leaders. They’re our captains. In many ways, they run this team. They’re always encouraging guys.”
The Little Dutchmen’s Wolfe-led pack overwhelmed the competition. With a winning time of 16:01, Wolfe was the first of four Annville-Cleona harriers to finish in the top five.
Bachman was third, A-C teammate Jeff Inman fourth and Ben Mason fifth. Throw in Little Dutchmen Phil Corle in the eighth slot, Jonathan Zechman at number ten and Garrett Bosworth at 11, and Annville-Cleona, the reigning District Three Class AA team champion counted 21 team points, well ahead of runner-up Palmyra’s 61.
“Coming in, I knew I’d like to win,” said Wolfe, a senior who was the runner-up at the County meet as a junior. “But Calvin Conrad-Kline from Palmyra is a really good runner. I didn’t think it was a push-over.
“I wanted to get out fast,” Wolfe continued. “I went out fast and there was a lot of guys with me. I was tired and when I looked it was like ‘Geez’. The fans kind of carry you through that last 100 meters.”
Wolfe and Conrad-Kline began to distance themselves from the rest of the 44 other runners around the one-mile mark. By the two-mile mark, Wolfe had gained a clear advantage on Conrad-Kline. His margin of victory was 19 seconds.
Falcons Noah Bedcay and Isarah Shiner nailed down the sixth and seventh-place spots, while Elco’s Jonathan Garcia was ninth.
“It’s (the County Meet) just really good timing,” said Wolfe, who won last season’s District Three Class AA individual championship. “We try not to tire ourselves out mentally. Yeah, it’s a good time for this meet as far as our season goes.
“We want to repeat as district champs,” Wolfe added, “and I’d like to repeat as the individual champion. And we have some state aspirations.”
“Things went really well today,” Wenger said. “Yeah, I think there was a lot of talk coming in. Cedar Crest was the defending champion and didn’t run their top team. They have a tough meet coming up and we respect that.”
Tukis’ effort spearheaded an overwhelming performance by the Palmyra girls. At one point during the girls’ race, it was Cougars as far as the eye could see, each evenly spaced to the next competitor, six in all.
That’s right , the Cougars claimed the top six spots individually, and eight of the top nine. That finish translated into the lowest team score possible – 15 points – and a 46-point triumph over runner-up Cedar Crest.
‘I can’t believe it. I’m kind of speechless,” said Tukis, who was clocked in 19:15. “This year, we have something special. We’re friends and great teammates. That’s the best kind of motivation. Sometimes I feel like I’m pulling my teammates.
“All of my hard work has finally paid off,” added Tukis. “During the race, I try to block things out. But yeah it (her time) is a best. It’s overwhelming.”
“Last year, two former coaches set us notes making it very clear it was the best girls’ cross country team in Palmyra history,” said Mellinger. “This group is better. It’s the same group working harder.
“It would’ve been a challenging speech at the end if we hadn’t won,” Mellinger added. “On paper, it went the way it should’ve gone, maybe a little bit better.”
Following in Tukis’ footsteps – both figuratively and literally – were teammates Olivia Farabaugh, who was second, Miranda Salvo, who was third, Laura Duquette, who was fourth, Mariah Ricci, who was fifth, and Devin Strynkowski, who was sixth. By finishing seventh, Cedar Crest’s Mackenzie Shiner temporarily interrupted the Palmyra train, until Cougars Ashley Cypher came in eighth and Emily Bremeister took ninth.
“They definitely get along,” said Mellinger of her troops. “They challenge each other. But in the end, they come together. They definitely are a team.