BY JEFF FALK
EPHRATA – Words like ‘best’, ‘ever’, ‘greatest’, ‘all-time’, have powerful meanings. They’re superlatives and definitives that pronounce excellence.
Yesterday, Lebanon County experienced one of its finest Lancaster-Lebanon League cross country meets ever. One would be hard-pressed to identify another, in the long history of the event, where the locale enjoyed more success as a whole.
On a radiant Tuesday evening at Ephrata Middle School, Lebanon County put together an historic and record-breaking showing at the L-L league meet.
Northern Lebanon senior Gage Krall was triumphant in the boys’ 3.1-mile race, and Cedar Crest junior Gwyneth Young earned the individual championship for girls. Young became the first Falcon female to win a league title since Wendy Nelson did so in 1986, while Krall’s championship for the Vikings may have been just as rare.
Meanwhile, the Falcon boys captured their first team championship since 2013, after finishing as the runner-up at the last three league meets. Led by Tommy Bildheiser’s sprint to second-place, Cedar Crest placed an amazing five runners among the top ten individuals, and seven in the top 20.
The Falcons’ score of 36 team points was some 20 points lower than runner-up Hempfield, which had beat out Cedar Crest during the regular season for the Section One title.
On the girls’ side, the Falcons’ second-place performance as a team was also one of the program’s best ever. Cedar Crest finished a mere three points behind Section One champion Hempfield, thanks in part to Young, Shayla Bonzelet’s 12th-place medal and Jillian Tobias’ 16th-place hardware.
Wow! Got all that?
“It’s a special group,” said Cedar Crest boys’ and girls’ head coach Brandon Risser. “It starts with the leaders and captains bringing people together and doing things the right way. We’ve come here and been second the last three years on the boys’ side, and to finally have a break through is amazing. They didn’t settle. They fought to earn this. Fifty-six points wins this most years.
“We were 34 seconds apart from one through five,” continued Risser. “That was the best spread of our season at a big meet. Our second, third, fourth and fifth runners were separated by four seconds. That is a pack attack at the front. That is guys running tough, running for each other and running for the team. We had seven league medalists.”
“It’s insane,” said Young. “Coming here, I could envision it, but I had to execute. Peaking is all mental. But I don’t really believe in peaking. I always put out 150 percent.”
“Coming in, my mind was all over the place,” said Krall. “I wanted to win. At the LVC Invitational (in September), I ran my best race of the season and had a great time. I remembered what it felt like to run that fast and I tried to duplicate it today.”
In a way, Krall also fed off the Falcons’ success.
The game plan called for him to compete with the Cedar Crest pack early, identify a place in the middle of the race where he could establish a lead, and then hold off the Falcons at the end. It worked to perfection.
“I wanted to let the Cedar Crest runners lead,” said Krall. “From the start, it was kind of slow. I was looking around and I wanted to stay behind the Cedar Crest boys. I thought at the top, after the double hill, I needed to get a lead.
“I heard people saying, ‘They’re five meters back. They’re ten meters back. They’re 15 meters back,'” added Krall. “I didn’t believe them. Those guys are at the top of their class. I didn’t want to get caught.”
At last year’s L-L League meet, Krall finished eighth, but was the highest placing non-senior. This time around, he ran a 16:17.5 and beat Bildheiser to the tape by five seconds.
Elco senior Mitchell Gray ran sixth, in a time of 16:47.7, while Falcons Luke Hinegardner, William Scheffield, Ryan Scicchitano and Ryan Wolfe claimed the next four positions. Cedar Crest’s Ben McElroy and Dominique Smith-Rodriguez also earned league medals.
“This year I decided it was my turn,” smiled Krall. “The competition here is usually harder than at districts. I’m just glad the Cedar Crest kids aren’t in districts. They push me every time.”
“I wasn’t thinking about the outcome today,” said Risser. “That puts pressure on the wrong places. We wanted to focus on running your best and individual effort, and I thought we did a really good job of that. Hopefully, we can learn from this and do that well again.”
Young’s winning time of 18:35.2 was a whopping 23 seconds faster than Locker’s and the rest of the field.
A potential showdown between Young and Elizabethtown star and defending league champion Katie Locker never materialized. She got off to a good start, widened her lead throughout and never looked back.
“I’m kind of in my own little world out there,” said Young. “I’m trying to teach myself that the only thing I can control is myself. In my head, my first thought is always of the team. I wanted to establish a pace for my teammates.”
“She’s run fast times. She’s had PRs (personal records). And the times are impressive,” said Risser of Young. “But today she won a championship. She crossed the finish line first. I’m just really proud of her.”
Last season at the Lancaster-Lebanon League meet, Young finished second. As a freshman, she was tenth.
What she was able to accomplish at this year’s league championship ranked right up there with many of her achieivements in cross country and track and field. But when it comes to Young, one is left with the distinct impression that the best is yet to come.
“The winter is for training for track,” said Young. “The summer is for training for cross country. It’s like living in the moment. If I had to choose between the two, I couldn’t choose.”
“The only way today would’ve been better is if we could’ve found three more points for the girls,” said Risser. “That was their best performance at this meet in school history. They were sixth last year, and to be second this year is awesome.”
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