POTTSTOWN >> There’s a definite upswing in the fortunes of the Potstown girls cross country team.
And Yuliza Cruz is literally at the forefront of it.
Cruz is establishing herself as the Trojans’ leader in the early part of the 2016 season. After placing second overall in last week’s 25-31 win over Upper Merion, the senior achieved a personal milestone Wednesday by winning this Pioneer Athletic Conference (Frontier Division) dual against Pottstown’s neighboring rivals.
Pottsgrove claimed the rest of the day’s honors, though. The Falcon girls bunched six runners behind Cruz to secure a 20-39 victory, and the Pottsgrove boys rode their own tight pack behind race winner Michael Neeson to a 16-47 win.
“When I was a sophomore, we had 10 girls on the team. We also had 10 my junior year,” Cruz recalled.
This year, the Trojans number in the 25 range; against Pottsgrove, they more than outnumbered the Falcons’ nine.
The 25-31 win over Upper Merion was another heady moment for the Pottstown girls, who have endured a string of 0-9 years in the league dating back to 2009.
“My freshman year, there were only five of us,” Cruz added. “It finally feels like family. We motivate each other.”
Cruz made her own motivation against the Falcons, whose tight front pack still finished more than a half-minute behind her. She covered her home course in 22:58 ahead of Pottsgrove’s Chloe Sullivan (23:34) and Madison Giraud (23:38), the only runners to crack the 24-minute mark on a hot day of distance running.
“The first mile I went out fast. A 6:40 is insane,” she said. “I just wanted to win so bad. I kept looking back. I thought they might catch me, but I guess not.”
But the Pottsgrove pack was more than equal to the task, Megan Czerpak (24:14), Amia Slade (24:21), Amie Wildermuth (25:36) and Elese Christ (26:18) finishing comfortably ahead of the Pottstown trio of Claire Fetterman (26:53), Adriana Hayward (27:01) and Winni Wang (27:31), who went 8-9-10 for the home team.
“I like the way our girls packed,” Pottsgrove head coach Larry Rechtin said. “It was a good solid race.”
Another characteristic of the Falcon field is the balance between the runners. Though Sullivan was their top runner a second straight week, it was noted nobody stands ahead of anybody else in terms of race leadership.
“They all ran solid. Some stepped up,” Rechtin said. “With only about seven or eight running, they know they all count, and we need them to step up.”
On the boys’ side, Neeson has picked up from where he left off in a junior year that saw him qualify for the PIAA Class AA race at Hershey. He crossed the line in 18:25, followed by teammates Cole Goldcamp (18:34), Bryce Hampton (18:46) and Garion Coddington (18:51).
His time showed considerable improvement over the 18:44 Neeson clocked against UM one week ago.
“So far, they (times) have been okay,” he said. “They were slower than I like. Usually when it (weather) cools off, I see the most improvement in my times.”
Khalif Burgess was Pottstown’s top finisher, coming home fifth in 18:57. He was followed by another pack of Falcons — Gabe Craig (sixth, 19:02), Andy Lin (seventh, 19:55), Brandon Henrikson (eighth, 19:54) — before the Trojans’ next runner Josh Gery, checked in ninth at 20:11.
Pottsgrove’s Cameron Kegel rounded out the Top 10 at 20:55.
The revised two-division PAC standings met with Rechtin’s approval … and not just because his boys are 2-0 with meets against Phoenixville, Pope John Paul II and Upper Perkiomen remaining.
“I like it,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate to be able to compete with the big schools, but we haven’t had the numbers the big schools have.”
Rechtin also sees Neeson, a 10th place finisher in last year’s PAC meet, in the mix to contend for the league’s top spot with the graduation of Methacton standout Jeff Kirshenbaum last spring.
“You have (Liam) Conway at Owen J. Roberts,” he noted, “and Spring-Ford is loaded. They’re crazy good.”
Before that, the Falcons will work to run the Frontier table. They also have invitationals like the Foundations meet at Hershey, and the Paul Short Invitational at Lehigh University, on their schedule.
“We’ll see how we stack up when we go to those meets,” Neeson said.
NOTES >> Cruz noted another difference in the Pottstown girls’ team demographic this year. “We used to have some field hockey girls who trained with us,” she said. “This year, some of them stayed with us.” … Rechtin noted another change resulting from the PAC’s divisional format: No double-dual meets. All PAC competitions will be two schools.