Liam Conway was having a dreamlike junior season of cross-country competition.
The star of the Owen J. Roberts boys’ team went into the state championship meet with a decided head of steam, coming off a championship run in the Pioneer Athletic Conference race and sixth in District 1 Class AAA competition. But an injury to his left sartorius muscle ended his season on a down note, finishing outside the top 100 in the finale at Hershey’s Parkview Course.
“I’m the only one who could gauge it,” Conway said of his decision to run at states. “I could have stopped, but I wanted to finish.”
Conway came back from the injury to have productive winter and spring track seasons. This fall, he repeated as the PAC boys’ champ and ran third at districts.
Now there is the unfinished business looming this weekend.
“Last year,” he recalled, “it was a rough time, mentally and physically. I’m coming back with a vengeance.”
Conway heads the sizeable PAC presence at states. He and his OJR teammates — both boys and girls — will be in the AAA pack along with the Spring-Ford boys team, while in the Class AA field the Pope John Paul II boys have qualified as a group by virtue of their team championship.
“Having two teams in states … that makes me so happy,” Conway said. “Having the team with me makes it more motivating.”
That’s in addition to the individuals — 25 from Class AAA, five from Class AA — who weren’t on the first five AAA teams that qualified from districts, or the AA champion. Those ranks are headed by Spring-Ford’s Gabriella Bamford, who finished third in the girls AAA event; Upper Perkiomen’s Cameron Junk, runner-up in the boys AA field; and UP’s Serena Detweiler, seventh in girls AA.
Bamford has been the class of the PAC girls this fall. The Spring-Ford senior won the conference’s championship race two weeks ago, then set a program record at Lehigh with the highest finish at districts.
“She was so strong at PACs, we wanted to see where she was coming from,” head coach Brian Sullivan said. “She was fourth before the loop at the halfway point. That was something special.”
To be sure, Bamford has hopes of improving on the 132nd-place finish she scored at Hershey one year ago.
“I’m hoping to break 20 minutes, and be in the mix for a medal,” she said.
Detweiler, in her second state meet, will also be seeking improvement over the 171st-place, 22:21 clocking at Hershey her sophomore season.
“I want to try and get into the 100s, with a better time,” she said.
Junk, qualifying for districts for the first time in two years, had the PAC’s highest individual finish: Second place to Lower Moreland’s Shane Cohen by one second (16:43). The UP senior will be running in the state meet for the first time in his scholastic career, though he feels confident about his chances on the Parkview Course.
“This year at the (PIAA) Invitational, I did great,” he said. “I did pretty good on the hills, though that will definitely be a challenge.”
The Pope John Paul II boys’ district championship was the headiest milestone of the PAC teams’ state qualification. It was by the merest of margins, the Golden Panthers’ 50 team points topping Holy Ghost Prep by one (51) in a field where the champion alone qualifies.
Shane McKeon (third in 17:08) and Michael Florig (fourth, 17:22) set the pace for PJP, with Jack Phillips (seventh, 17:56) and Kaden Buchler (14th, 18:09) also contributing. They form a blend of experience and youth, McKeon and Florig seniors while Phillips is a junior and Buchler a freshman.
“Props to our coaches for getting us here,” Florig said at districts. “The only reason we’re here is them getting us workouts.”
Finishing second as a team, after being one place short of qualification last year, was a fact not lost on the Owen J. Roberts girls. Seniors Mary Bernotas (24th) and Autumn Sands (27th) and sophomore Hannah Kopec (36th) led a tight pack that went 5-0 in the PAC’s Liberty Division regular-season races and first place in the conference meet.
“We want to run together one more time,” Sands said.
“For me and the kids, it’s a dream come true,” OJR head coach David Michael added. “They worked hard, and they deserve it.”
NOTES >> Other PAC runners to watch, based on district showings: In boys AAA, Carlos Shultz of Phoenixville (fifth), Andrew Malmstrom of Owen J. Roberts (ninth), Dominic DeRafelo of Boyertown (22nd), Jacob McKenna of Spring-Ford (23rd), Christian McComb of Boyertown (27th) and Kyle Malmstrom of OJR (28th). In girls AAA, Teagan Schein-Becker of Perkiomen Valley (13th), Emily Smith of Spring-Ford (23rd) and Naomi Hillen of Pottsgrove (28th). … Saturday’s schedule commences with the girls Class A race at 9:30 a.m., followed by the AA event at 10:15 a.m. and the AAA competition at 11 a.m. The boys Class A race is scheduled to go off at 11:45 a.m., followed by AA at 12:30 p.m. and AAA at 1:15 p.m.
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