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Pope John Paul II outlasts Upper Merion, completes unbeaten PAC Frontier run

UPPER PROVIDENCE >> A tough course, and tough competition.

That’s been the foundation for the recent success of the Pope John Paul II boys and girls cross country teams. It came to a head Wednesday when the Golden Panthers, on the occasion of their Senior/Parent Recognition activities, swept both parts of the Pioneer Athletic Conference meet to complete unbeaten runs through the Frontier Division.

The boys, who came into the season as defending District 1-AA team champion, outran the Vikings 19-37 headed by race winner Jack Phillips. And the girls, who went 1-4 in league competition last fall, reversed their fortunes with help from a 20-43 victory over an Upper Merion outfit led by Veronica Sanchez’ winning run on the rolling PJP course.

“It’s a huge advantage,” PJP’s first-year head coach, Lisa Cagliola, said. “It’s one of the tougher courses. It helps us mentally.”

Jack Phillips (Jeff Stover – Digital First Media)

Phillips, one of the seven seniors recognized prior to the races, ran his last home meet in solid fashion. He covered the course — it has a steep hill, running parallel to Township Line Road, at the start — in 18:32, with teammates Jack Brosius (18:59) and Kaden Buchler (19:02) going 2-3 a significant distance behind.

“The first mile, our plan is to let them lead,” Phillips said of the opposition. “Then halfway, the plan is to pull away.”

Knowing how to attack the hill at the start is a key aspect of the Golden Panthers’ home-course advantage.

“I tell the kids I don’t want any blue shirts leading,” Cagliola said. “And as muddy as it’s been, we know where to go left or right at certain spots.”

Julia Costello (Jeff Stover – Digital First Media)

In the girls’ race, Sanchez finished in 22:50, more than 30 seconds ahead of PJP leader Gianna Cagliola (23:24). But the Panthers ran away with the team victory by placing runners in the second through eighth positions, with Sarah Abruzzo third (23:54), senior Julia Costello fourth (24:00) and Katy Todd fifth (24:01).

“It’s always challenging,” Costello said after completing her final home-course race. “Running it every day, we get used to it. That’s why we do well.”

PJP’s lead pack continued with Kayla Croiger sixth (24:06), Claudia Dolan seventh (24:31) and Natalie Florig eighth (24:33). Upper Merion had the next four finishers in Emily Rotz (ninth), Claire Doan (10th), Claire Becker (11th) and Morgan Miller (12th).

“It’s the exact same thing,” Costello said of the girls team’s race strategy. “Let them lead and stay with them. That’s how we start.”

The Upper Merion boys got a 4-5 finish from Jack Matics (19:22) and Jack Larkin (19:39). PJP answered with J.P. Schiele placing sixth (20:06) and Jack Flynn seventh (20:22), and Jason DiMarco 10th (20:47) behind the Vikings’ Owen Ebeisdee (eighth, 20:33) and Abhiram Vagvala (ninth, 20:40).

“It’s the perfect end to a perfect season,” Phillips said. “That was our goal at the end.”

The Panther boys will take a strong head of steam into the Class AA competition at the District 1 Championships in two weeks. Before that, they will run in the PAC Championships next week against such Liberty Division big schools as Methacton, Owen J. Roberts, Perkiomen Valley and Spring-Ford.

“We’re hopeful to beat a couple of the Liberty Division teams at PACs,” Phillips said, “and maintain our lead over the Frontier Division schools.”

The freshman-heavy girls team, in turn, will carry the confidence — born of their turnaround in the regular season this fall — into the postseason meets.

“We wanted to win the Frontier, and get the undefeated title,” Costello said. “We’ve done well as a team and individuals.”

The feeling is running against the PAC’s bigger schools will give the Panthers a good preparation for races against the area’s AA entries.

“The boys are favored because they won districts last year,” Cagliola said. “Upper Perk could be tough competition.

“For the girls, Villa Joseph Marie and Villa Maria are perennials (strong teams). I would be happy with third. If we can do better place-wise, I would be happier.”

NOTES >> Along with Phillips, Schiele and Costello, PJP’s other seniors are Mary Kathleen Cleary, Elana Figliuolo, Elizabeth Wiggs and Jason Kost. … Costello had been a state-qualifying runner her freshman year. Her hope is to get back to Hershey one more time for her scholastic career.

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