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Cardinal O’Hara eager for the task of defending state cross country title

UPPER PROVIDENCE >> Every night before she goes to bed, Cardinal O’Hara senior Liz Mancini looks at the medal she received after the Lions won the first PIAA Class 3A state title in school history.

Her twin sister, Eleanor, and younger sister, Christine, do the same.

“Each of us has a special place in our rooms for our medals,” Eleanor said.

Those medals are more than just a reminder of what the Lions accomplished last season. It also serves as motivation for this season.

“We want to get to NXN (Nike Cross Country Nationals) this year,” Liz Mancini said. “Unfortunately, we could not get there last year. That is the big goal this year. We want to repeat as state champs and get to NXN.”

Repeating won’t be easy. The Lions have to replace two-time Daily Times Runner of the Year Olivia Arizin and veteran Sara Hayes, two of the five scorers in that championship meet. Arizin was the top finisher for the Lions in 13th.

The Lions do have the Mancini sisters back, all of whom placed in the top 50 overall at the state meet. Liz was 19th overall to earn an individual state medal to go with the one she received for O’Hara winning the team title. Eleanor was 41st and Christine 48th.

Also returning is sophomore Katie Till, who was 108th at the state meet as a freshman. As far as team scoring went, the Mancini’s were 13th, 23rd and 25th, respectively, while Till was 52nd.

“We’re excited,” Till said. “We have a really good team. To be a champion you have to have seven great runners and you have to have a good day, and I think we can have that again this year.”

Being the defending state champ comes with some pressure. Oakland Catholic was a heavy favorite a year ago. O’Hara was one of the teams to watch, along with District 1 champ Perkiomen Valley and several others.

“The expectations are raised this year,” O’Hara coach Tom Kennedy said. “I think people in the area knew we had a chance to win it, but not statewide. When we went into invitational meets last year, some people knew us and some didn’t. This year, it will be ‘Oh, that’s the team that won states last year.’”

Oakland Catholic is the favorite again. The Eagles have five of their top runners returning from a team that was second by 39 points and ranked No. 1 in the Flo 50 statewide rankings. O’Hara is ranked second and up to the challenge of defending its title.

“We’re putting in the work,” Liz Mancini. “Being the defending state champion is pretty motivating. We want to get another one.”

That takes a lot of work.

“A lot of people are pushing for those (open) spots,” Eleanor Mancini said.

“Summer miles bring Fall smiles,” Till said. “Sara (Hayes) used to say that all the time.”

That adage proved true last year, and the luster of being the first team in school history to win a PIAA title has not worn off.

“It’s different this year,” Christine Mancini said. “We’re not used to being the state champs, but it’s a good feeling.”

O’Hara is the first county team to enter the season as a defending state champion since Radnor, which won the girls 3A title in 2006. The Lions open the season Wednesday in the first of six weekly Catholic League meets at Belmont Plateau.

The Lions are also entered in the Briarwood Invitational (Sept. 16) and the PIAA Foundation meet (Sept. 23), and then it’s onto championship season starting with the Delco Champs Oct. 7 at Rose Tree Park.

“We wanted to go to the Great American race in North Carolina, but that’s the same week as Delco’s,” Kennedy said. “I don’t think we’re going to go to the Paul Short Invitational, so the schedule looks a lot like last year’s.”

That schedule worked out well. The Lions have the medals to prove it.

“In cross country, those are hard to come by,” Kennedy said.

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