Coach pays off bet as Hampton wins school’s 1st WPIAL cross country title

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Saturday, November 6, 2021 | 11:01 AM


Hampton boys cross country coach Dean Longwell dyed his hair bleach blonde on Oct. 31, but it had nothing to do with Halloween.

Longwell was keeping his word.

The longtime coach made a bet with his young team over the summer. If they earned a top-three finish at the WPIAL Class 2A cross country championships and qualified for the PIAA meet, he would bleach his hair.

The Talbots went one step further, winning the first WPIAL cross country championship in school history with a dominating run on Oct. 28 at Cal (Pa.).

“I’m a dirty blonde now,” Longwell said. “I knew they were talented. Early on, I just didn’t see this coming. As soon as I saw them (place second) at Red, White & Blue, I’m like, ‘I probably might be dying my hair.’”

One year after finishing 11th at the WPIAL Class 2A championships, the improving Talbots left nothing to chance. They placed five runners — all sophomores or freshmen — in the top 25 despite fielding one of the youngest teams in Class 2A.

Sophomores Jacob Bonnar (seventh in 17 minutes, 50 seconds), Nathan Garrett (12th, 18:07) and Dale Hall (13th, 18:07.10) and freshmen Chris Belch (17th, 18:11.10) and Nathan Gardner (24th, 18:25.30) guided the Talbots to the crown with 73 team points.

North Catholic was a distant second with 120 points.

“It felt really good,” Bonnar said. “We were working for this since the beginning of the year, and we’ve been talking about it. But when it really happened, it just felt really good.”

Seniors Jackson McGrath (32nd) and Quentin Romero-Lauro (41st) added depth for the Talbots, who will run at the PIAA Class 2A championships for the first time under Longwell on Nov. 6 at Hershey.

“I’m really excited,” Bonnar said. “I’m hoping we can go to states the next two years, too, and keep it going.”

On the girls side, junior Ava Vitiello (10th in 20:00.02) and freshman Kevyn Fish (12th in 20:07.02) qualified for the PIAA Class 3A championships with strong performances in the WPIAL meet.

The boys gave a hint of their promise with a second-place finish at the early-season Red, White & Blue Classic. Only Grove City, a non-WPIAL school, finished ahead of the Talbots.

“We’ve been riding under the radar, and then at the Red, White & Blue we really finished high,” Belch said. “That meet, we just really showed up and we had the mentality to win.”

Hampton competed in a Class 3A section during the regular season and weekly meets against perennial powers such as North Allegheny, Butler and Seneca Valley helped toughen up the young runners.

The Talbots lost senior Michael Belch to a season-ending foot injury but continued to get faster. They showed their depth by winning the 21-team Class 2A division at Tri-State Invitational on Oct. 21 at Cal (Pa.), setting the stage for their gold-medal performance one week later at WPIALs.

“It was just amazing,” Longwell said of the WPIAL championships. “They all finished pretty strong. … I got no school work done that night.”

The Talbots celebrated the WPIAL championship with their traditional post-meet dinner at Olive Garden and made sure to remind Longwell about their preseason wager.

His wife, Amy, applied the bleach blond dye on Halloween and Longwell, a social studies teacher, said he got some funny looks at school and cross country practice the following day.

“(Amy) got a kick out of it,” Longwell said. “When I told her that we were doing this well, I kind of told her about the bet. She was fine with it.

“It looks like a mid-life crisis a little bit. … (The team) said it looks good. Some are saying I should keep it. But that’s not going to happen.”

Hampton athletic director Bill Cardone also got into the fun at the WPIAL championships when he learned about Longwell’s preseason pledge.

“(Cardone) was also there and he said he would do it, too, if he had hair,” Belch said. “It was fun. Everyone was happy after the meet.”

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