UPPER PROVIDENCE >> When Agnes Mansaray eclipsed the finish line with nothing but a chute and plastic, water-filled cups in front of her, a dreary Saturday became her happiest day in the 18 years of her life.
While the Bulldog Invitational at Rose Tree Park doesn’t carry any championship implications, the 28-school, Interboro-hosted invitational was Mansaray’s first cross country meet after moving to the United States from Sierra Leone last year.
And not only did the Penn Wood senior defeat the field of 42 large-school girls varsity runners — she blew it away by nearly 16 seconds, as she took gold in 19 minutes, 20.50 seconds.
“These are the fast meets for cross country competition,” Mansaray said. “When you start, and you start winning, you keep happy and you keep practicing to improve. I want to run 18 (minutes) — 17s and 18s.”
A former member of Sierra Leone’s World Juniors team, the 2015 All-Delco girls track selection is still adjusting to life in Delaware County.
Spending a day in 60-degree weather — a stark contrast from Sierra Leone’s tropical climate — might have Mansaray reaching for the winter hat and gloves. It did, too, in last May’s District One Championships at Coatesville High School.
“Her biggest competition is going to be the weather,” Penn Wood track and cross country coach Lenny Jordan said. “When we went to districts last year, it was like 58 (or) 60 degrees and she was freezing. We were all happy, and she’s freezing. She’s got on gloves, a wool hat and a long shirt, and we were like, ‘Man, this girl is crazy.’
“But we don’t appreciate that because we haven’t been around (Sierra Leone’s) kind of weather.”
Balancing school with sport isn’t always an easy task for high school athletes, too, let alone one who’ll say she still can’t speak or understand English all that well.
“It’s really hard when you’re doing a sport and going to school,” Mansaray said. “When I come home, I don’t have enough time to study. I always feel tired, go to bed and sleep. I’m not able to study enough. It’s really hard to put those things together.”
Judging solely by several blistering performances on the track last year, the learning curve outside of it would’ve been tough to notice. A silver medal and a county-record mark of 2:09.70 in the Class AAA 800-meter run in last spring’s PIAA Championships at Hershey highlighted her accolades list in her still-brief tenure at Penn Wood.
That is, until Saturday.
Not only did Mansaray swipe gold after a cross country race for the first time, her junior teammate, Terri Turner, followed up by edging Wissahickon’s Lotte Black for the runner-up spot in 19:36.10.
Turner is also a first-year Penn Wood cross country participant, as she transferred to the school from Springside-Chestnut Hill. Not only is she a new runner for Jordan’s team, she’s a fast one, too, as she capped her indoor season last year by taking bronze with a 2:12.80 mark in the 800 at the New Balance Nationals Indoor meet.
Not only that, she’ll have a training partner this year in Mansaray.
“We want them to each run off of each other,” Jordan said. “Whatever strengths Agnes has, we’ll try to work that into Terri. Whatever strengths Terri has, we’ll try to work that into Agnes, so that they just become good together.”
“(Going 1-2 in races) is our goal,” Turner said. “Me and Agnes. She helps me training and I help her train. She’s been an awesome training partner to have.”
Penn Wood’s Maisha Coleman rounded out Delco’s top three finishers in the race, finishing in 21:26.90 for eighth overall.
On the boys’ side, Marple Newtown’s Zak Elfernani (sixth) and Caleb Van Deusen (19th) were Delco’s lone top-20 finishers in large-schools action. In his second cross country season, Elfernani’s time Saturday came in at about two-and-a-half minutes ahead of the 19:50 mark which he said he turned in last year for his first competitive 5,000-meter race.
“At first, I wasn’t that good,” said Elfernani, a junior. “But I just kept working at it and working at it. I’m getting up there, man.”