BY JEFF FALK
HERSHEY – Joy. Anger. Surprise. Trust. Grief. Fear. Love.
Maria Tukis experienced just about the full gamut of human emotions at the District Three Cross Country Meet on Wednesday afternoon. Some of them were the result of personal accomplishment, others were related to social interaction.
Where it became murky for Tukis was distinguishing between the two origins.
Tukis, a budding sophomore, led the Palmyra girls to a District Three Class AA team championship at the 3.1-mile Parkview course, located west of the Giant Center parking lot, in Hershey. And while she was doing so, Tukis grabbed a little personal reward, in the form of the Class AA individual title.
With the aroma of chocolate in the air, Tukis covered the course in 19:59, some five seconds faster than runner-up Emily Joyce of Big Spring. Tukis spearheaded a Cougar effort that produced five finishers in the top 20, as well as a team score of 49 points, which was well ahead of second-place York Suburban’s 72 points.
But Tukis and her Cougars’ performance wasn’t the only local highlight. The Annville-Cleona boys claimed their third District Three Class AA team title, as senior star Shaun Wolfe showed the way with a second-place showing.
“I’m just so humbled by the entire experience,” said Tukis. “I realize how much hard work goes into success. But I had some tension at the beginning. My coaches do everything they can to keep your mind off of it, because they know how much you are going through.
“I knew we were going to do it,” Tukis continued. “I knew I was one of the more weighted runners. It was pressure, but I thrive on pressure. I wanted to leave the course with a sense of satisfaction.”
“I don’t know anyone who has the the work ethic or heart that Maria does,” said Palmyra head coach Barb Mellinger. “This is what we’ve been looking at since May. But I didn’t think we’d win by 23 points. So yes, they (her runners) went above and beyond my expectations.”
Tukis got off to a good start, and established a workable lead by the halfway point of the race. Even though she never really distanced herself from the rest of the 168-runner field, Tukis never stopped running her race.
“I went out hard,” said Tukis. “This course is hilly, but I love hills because I love passing people. At the end, I never felt so dead. That last sprint seems like it takes an hour of your life.
“The start of the race was fast,” Tukis continued. “We knew the first mile should be around 5:50, and we were right on. But I still had hills that are tough. So what I did was get on my toes and open my stride really big. I definitely started kicking around the turns. Then I just sprinted as hard as I could. And that was my race.”
“I’m a forward thinker,” said Mellinger. “So sometimes I think ahead and don’t enjoy the moment. But I am enjoying this moment.
Tukis’ senior teammate Olivia Farabaugh finished fourth in 20:09, while Cougars Laura Duquette and Miranda Salvo were 12th and 13th, and Devin Strynkowski came in 20th.
Tukis, the reigning Lebanon County champion, took fifth at the recent Mid-Penn Conference meet. Last year as a freshman, Tukis came in 14th among Class AAA competitors at the District Three championships.
As the district champs, Palmyra will compete as a Class AA team at the PIAA Championships, which will be contested on the same Parkview course on Saturday, November 3.
“Laura has been running fourth for us and she was third today,” said Mellinger. “And Devin Strynkowski running 20th was huge for us.
“I would love to be in the top two at states,” added Mellinger. “That would be amazing. That would be terrific.”
“If I had to choose, I would take the team title, hands down,” said Tukis. “But I knew if I came in first I would benefit the team. I would’ve been devastated if we didn’t win. I love these ladies. And we wanted to make our coaches proud.
“It’s undescribable how you feel,” continued Tukis. “I’m honored to be with this group of girls. All the cross country people were here. I just can’t believe it, and I have so much to look forward to. I’m just loving it and taking everything in.”
For Wolfe, the 2011 Class AA District Three champion, Annville-Cleona’s team title was a very rewarding consolation.
Wolfe could also take consolation from the fact that the only runner to finish ahead of him, Vinny Todaro of Big Spring, is one of the top competitors in the state. Todaro’s margin of victory was four seconds, 16:35 to 16:39.
“I think I have beaten him before,” said Wolfe of Todaro. “But the last time he raced me, at the Carlisle Invitational, he crushed me by about 30 seconds. Yeah, I would’ve liked to have repeated. But if I can be that close to Vinny, I can take some consolation out of that.
“Yeah, I’d rather have the team title,” Wolfe added. “If I had to choose, I’d choose the team because we’ve never won three districts in-a-row. It’s a great bunch of guys. But I really wanted to win both.”
“I thought the consolation was that he (Wolfe) was sticking close to a guy who’s one of the best in the state,” said Annville-Cleona head coach Ben Wenger. “You see guys flip like that. Shawn is going to be there at states.”
Wolfe and Todaro jockeyed for position over the opening mile, before distinguishing themselves from the rest of the pack. But Todaro kept Wolfe at bay over the remainder of the race, and Wolfe didn’t have enough left at the end to out kick him.
“We went out pretty fast,” said Wolfe. “I felt pretty good at the beginning. At the two-mile point we picked it up and separated ourselves. He went 4:16 in the mile (during track and field season), but I tried not to think about it. I knew he had a good kick. But I just waited too long in this race.
“I came in this year more nervous than last year,” added Wolfe. “I guess I lacked confidence coming in.”
“In so many ways, it was expected,” said Wenger of the team title. “We didn’t make a big deal out of it. We wanted to peak at states, and I think we are. There’s no reason this team can’t place near the top in the state meet.”
The Little Dutchmen also got strong efforts out of senior Mark Bachman, who was seventh, sophomore Jeff Inman, who finished 16th, senior Ben Mason, who came in 31st, and senior Phil Corle, who was 44th. Joining the Annville-Cleona contingent at states will be Palmyra senior Calvin Conrad-Kline, who ran fifth in 17:02.
“Jeff Inman, our number three runner, had a great race,” said Wenger. “At the league meet, he didn’t do well, he wasn’t where he should be. And when it comes to the post-season, Mark makes a living off of it. He always steps it up in big meets.”
Another Annville-Cleona runner, soph0more Shelby Dove, will also be making the trip to states. Dove finished fifth among females in the Class A race, clocking a 21:56.
“It didn’t change a thing,” said Dove of the Little Dutchmen’s initial foray into the recently created Class A field. “I felt wonderful in the race. I just went through it. I ran my own race.
“It was about all of that, the time, the medal, going to states,” Dove continued. “To me, the course was really hilly. I didn’t remember it being that hilly last year because I was so excited. This year I knew it better and it made it more difficult.”