CENTER SQUARE >> It’s not the first time Liam Conway was a repeat winner at a cross-country event.
But it’s appearing to be his most memorable occurrence.
Conway repeated as the Pioneer Athletic Conference’s individual champion Thursday. The Owen J. Roberts senior won the annual conference race at Heebner Park, shaving time off last year’s first-place run, and he will undoubtably remember the repeat performance for a good long time.
“I did it at a few invitationals, like DeSales,” Conway said afterward. “But they’re not much like this.”
The girls’ PAC race saw Gabriella Bamford become the conference’s first champion in the post-Annie Glodek era, the Spring-Ford senior beating out Perkiomen Valley’s Teagan Schein-Becker by three seconds.
The Rams and Wildcats also headed the team-championship competition. The SF boys edged Owen J. by two points in a rematch of their PAC dual one week ago — the Cats topped the dual 23-33, forcing a three-way tie for first place in the Liberty Division that also included Boyertown — while the OJR girls were literally the runaway champion by a 17-point margin over Perkiomen Valley.
“This is what I thought would happen, with Gabby and the boys,” SF head coach Brian Sullivan said of his program’s performance, which included a third straight team championship by his boys. “It was a good day for Spring-Ford cross country.”
His Roberts counterpart, David Michael, was particularly happy for his girls’ team. Going through a 2016 season that saw it miss qualifying for the state meet as a unit by a handful of points, Owen J. dominated the conference race the same way it went through the duals on its schedule: With a tight pack that placed seven runners among the top 21, and a 3-4-5 run at the top.
“I thought we ran well,” Michael said. “I thought if we ran well, we’d be okay. Perkiomen Valley is talented. They earned and deserved what they got.”
Conway kept to his usual strategy of running with the lead pack prior to making his finishing kick. He lowered his winning 2016 time of 16:21 by 14 points, crossing the line in 16:07 five seconds ahead of Spring-Ford’s Jake McKenna.
McKenna was followed across the line by Methacton’s Matt Varghese, the sophomore clocking a 16:20. SF’s Shane Ainscoe placed fourth in 16:22, and OJR’s Andrew Malmstrom fifth in 16:26.
“Today, it was so much more about the team,” Conway said. “I would rather get the team title than the individual one. I wanted to do a good job for the team.”
In the girls’ race, Bamford made considerable improvement over her showing in the 2016 championship. Placing sixth one year ago, her 19:27 time trailing Schein-Becker (third, 19:10), Bamford ran a scintillating 19:03 to edge the PV senior by three seconds.
“I guess the first mile,” Bamford said of the point at which she made her move for the lead. “I planned to stay with the pack, but I felt good and I knew how the girls have kicks.”
Bamford and Schein-Becker finished almost a half-minute ahead of Owen J’s Autumn Sands (19:33), Mary Bernotas (19:37) and Hannah Kopec (19:42). But the Wildcat trio’s tight pack underscored the tight overall pack their team ran.
Alex Glasier scored a seventh in 19:57 and Mikayla Niness was 11th in 20:30. Owen J. got displacement in the field from Mackenzie Kurtz, who was one spot back of Niness in 12th (20:33); and Emma Torak, who came in 21st (20:59).
“It’s our mental state this year, going hard during the race and gauging where we are among the other runners,” Sands said.
The team championship gives the OJR girls momentum toward their goal of qualifying the team for the PIAA championship meet in two weeks. It fell seven points short of accomplishing that last year, placing sixth in a District 1 Class AAA field that advances the top five teams.
“Last year we were really close,” Bernotas said. “This year we went in knowing if we win the PAC, we’re in good shape.”
PV, winner of the PAC’s last two team championships, had a pair of Top 10 finishers in Julia Dorley (sixth, 19:48) and freshman Delaney O’Sullivan (ninth, 20:20). It also had Rachael Daniels (15th, 20:48) and Jocelyn Rotay (17th, 20:55) fit in the Top 20.
The boys’ team championship duel saw Spring-Ford and Roberts all even in scoring through their first four runners. The difference ended up being the finishes of their fifth runners, where Zach Smith gave the Rams their edge.
Smith placed 13th in 16:52, seven seconds ahead of Owen J’s Vincent Fennell (16:59). His return to the lineup, following an absence from last weekend’s duel with the Wildcats. gave his team a significant boost.
“It was tough. I was going through something with my foot, and I’m hoping to stay healthy,” Smith said. “It’s a nagging pain, but I’m running through it.”
Finishing between McKenna and Smith for SF were Shane Ainscoe (fourth, 16:22), freshman John Zawislak (eighth, 16:33) and Milan Sharma (10th, 16:40). Like the Owen J. girls, the Rams are also looking to reach states as a team after being sixth at districts in 2016.
“Today, we ran well as a team,” McKenna said. “Next week, we want to keep it up and get in the Top Five.”
Owen J’s Andrew Malmstrom (fifth, 16:26), Kyle Malmstrom (seventh, 16:30), Linus Blatz (11th, 16:42) and Fennell all followed Conway for their second-place team finish.
“Two points is tough to swallow,” Conway said. “But I’m proud of everyone. We’re looking forward to next week.”
NOTES >> Kopec credited Glasier for contributing toward her fifth-place finish. “Alex was behind me the whole race, telling me when to push,” she said. … Dominic DeRafelo (sixth, 16:29) and Christian McComb (ninth, 16:38) led the Boyertown boys to their third-place (64 points) team finish. … Upper Perkiomen junior Serena Detweiler, a district medalist and state qualifier last year, placed 14th in 20:44 to emerge as the highest-finishing runner not in the OJR/PV/SF triumvirate. … In the boys’ race, Phoenixville’s Aaron Hin (14th, 16:57) and Upper Perk’s Cameron Junk (16th, 17:01) were their teams’ highest finishers. For the girls, Methacton’s Sarah Nicoletti (16th, 20:52) and Phoenixville’s Victoria Wright (18th, 20:56) led their teams with Top 20 showings. … Other top girls finishers for their teams were Amanda Murphy for Boyertown (25th), Emily Rotz for Upper Merion (34th), Amie Wildermuth for Pottsgrove (tie 37th) and Hailey Christman for Pottstown (40th). For the boys, it was Tyler Clifford for Perkiomen Valley (24th), Bryce Hampton for Pottsgrove (37th), John Mattics for Upper Merion (44th), Ricardo Moreno for Norristown (47th) and Giankirk Kimmell for Pottstown (53rd),