BETHLEHEM >> After coming so close a year ago, the North Penn girls are headed to Hershey.
This time, they’re going as a team.
“Last year it was only myself, Phoebe Clowser and Olivia Dyer that went,” the Knights’ Ariana Gardizy said, “and it was kind of sad, depressing — we didn’t even get a school bus to ride up in. We just rode in a van with the coaches. So we were really hoping to make it this year.”
Gardizy and the North Penn pack came through, placing fourth as a team in a stacked District 1-3A and earning a trip to next Saturday’s PIAA Championships.
The Central Bucks West boys also qualified as a team and Souderton Area’s Connor McMenamin raced to a second-place finish on the boys side in Class AAA, and Dock’s Tim Kennel was the winner in Class A on this windy but vintage fall afternoon at Lehigh University.
Gardizy raced to a fourth-place finish — out of 363 runners — in an impressive time of 17 minutes, 59 seconds.
“I felt really good. It was a lot different (than last week at SOL’s), having more competition in front of you, so I didn’t know exactly where I’d be in the race,” the junior said. “I wanted to run with (MaryGrace Rittler) from Cheltenham because I knew we were just about exactly the same.
“There would always be somebody that would come up on us and we’d run together, and then in the end, I kinda saw the Downingtown West girl (Emma Planck) in front of me so I thought she was pushing and I’d try to catch her at the end.”
Gardizy outraced both Rittler (sixth) and Planck (fifth) in a stellar field. North Penn’s pack followed in tight formation, with Dyer (14th, 18:37), Mikaela Vlasic (17th, 18:45), Jenna Webb (77th, 19:52) and Maeve Gimbert (86th, 19:55) all coming through with strong races.
“Last week I tried to take it out slower but I knew I couldn’t do that this week — it’s such a big field that I would just get lost in all the runners,” said Dyer, who went to Hershey last year with Gardizy along with then-senior Phoebe Clowser (Illinois State University). “So I tried to go out a little bit faster and made my moves after the first mile. For me, it was mostly just passing as many people as I could to help lower the team score because we really wanted to go to states as a team.”
They got it done, earning NP its first team spot at states since 2012.
“It means so much. We were off by one place last year (sixth). Phoebe had gone as a freshman and said it was the best thing, so we were really hoping we’d get to go,” Dyer said.
The Bucks certainly know the way to the land of chocolate — for the third straight year, they qualified out of rugged Class AAA.
“We kinda had a target on our back since early in the year,” said the Bucks’ Brian Mass, who led West with a 32nd-place finish. “We were really busting our tails over the summer, throughout the fall and every race to get ourselves there.”
Amazingly, the Bucks had just a 10-second gap between runners one and five, with Teagan Fortna (33rd), Alec Hofer (37th), Ben Bunch (42nd) and Mark McClenahan (52nd) powering West to No. 3 in the district.
“It was a little cooler this week which was nice and a little packed, but more competition helps you run faster so I can’t complain about that,” Mass said. “It’s a feeling of relief when you see the finish line. You’re thinking ‘I know my team is counting on me and I have to get there as fast as I freakin’ can.’”
McMenamin hammered Lehigh’s course in 15:29, in a tight battle with Neshaminy’s Rusty Kujdych (15:20) for top honors.
One year made quite a difference for Dock’s Tim Kennel, who battled through a bout with Lyme Disease in the fall of 2015, placing fifth at districts. This year he was healthy and at full-strength, claiming the top spot in Distict 1-A.
“It was an entirely different feeling this year,” the junior said. “(The illness) was a curse at the time but now I’d say it was a blessing. I know what it’s like to run in the worst of conditions and it makes the best conditions seem that much better.
“I can see the positive side of every race now. I love it here. I love doing what I’m doing and I’m very happy I could come away with a first place.”