Cross country coaches make tweaks to run meets, generate ‘enthusiasm, optimism’

Saturday, September 5, 2020 | 4:44 PM

With the hope of having a fall high school season and understanding meets most likely would take a form unlike any before, cross country coaches throughout the WPIAL collaborated with each other and others from across the country to develop ideas as well as generate enthusiasm and optimism.

Pennsylvania teams received a boost Aug. 21 when the PIAA gave high school squads the green light to proceed with their seasons.

“It’s been amazing working with so many coaches and other officials,” said Kiski Area coach Tom Berzonsky, who is spearheading the fourth annual Gingerbread Man Running Company Kiski Area Invitational on Sept. 18.

“We’ve had Zoom meetings going all the way back to May. Everybody gave ideas to help make the season happen.

“The kids have been awesome about it all. They want to run this fall and have been willing to do whatever they need to do. The term I’ve been using is they’ve been professional about it.”

Kiski Area and Norwin got a feel for the season with a scrimmage Saturday morning at Kiski Area High School, and other area schools are having similar gatherings before the first competitions can start Sept. 14.

“Our kids have been pretty understanding with what lies ahead,” Latrobe coach Todd Simpson said. “There’s been a mixture of frustration and excitement. Many were also track athletes who had to go through what happened to their spring season. They are looking at this as a chance and something that hasn’t been canceled yet.

“It’s not going to be perfect or what everyone is used to, but it’s going to be something.”

In the PIAA’s return to competition guidelines released this summer, it recommended using staggered, wave or interval starts with a maximum of 12 participants from each boys and girls team. Guidelines also are spelled out in the schools’ athletic health and safety plans crafted in July.

The Kiski Invitational at Northmoreland Park will follow the format regulations with a cap of 14 teams running in 30-minute intervals starting at 9 a.m. and finishing at 4 p.m.

Berzonsky said it will run in the spirit of the team time trials used at the Tour de France.

“We’re fans of the Tour de France, and we’ve always loved the team time trial aspect. We thought it would be cool to see the runners do that,” Berzonsky said.

“Millersville University also used to do something similar with their cross country team. We knew it would limit the exposure of the kids and the overall numbers at the park (250 limit) within the time frame the schools are supposed to be there. You only have one team there at a time with 24 runners on the course. In a standard invitational, you could have 250 with just the runners.”

The Kiski Invitational features teams from all three classifications with some of the top teams and runners in the WPIAL.

As with the Tour de France, different color jerseys will be awarded to the top finishers as well as the teams that are able to best handle the big hill and the sprint finish on the Northmoreland course. The top freshmen also will receive a jersey.

“We’ll have a lot of different things for the runners to shoot for,” Berzonsky said. “We just want to have fun while working with the changes.”

Fox Chapel coach Tom Moul said his teams most likely will split between Kiski and the Class AAA race at the Red, White & Blue Invitational at White Oak Park the next day.

The Red, White & Blue varsity Class A race (six-runner maximum) will be at White Oak on Sept. 18, and the Class AA and AAA races (five-runner max) will be Sept. 19.

“We didn’t have guarantees all summer, but now things are a little more set in place,” Moul said. “You would like to have everything normal as it always has been, but what the heck, it will be something fun and different.”

From the big opening weekend of races, teams have events such as the PIAA Foundation Invitational (Sept. 26) in Hershey and McKeesport’s River Trail Invitational (Oct. 9) on the calendar.

The Westmoreland County Coaches Association board recently voted to cancel its annual cross country championship meet Oct.15 because of coronavirus concerns with older workers involved and liability issues.

But the coaches came together and kept the event alive in the form of the Westmoreland County Championship on the same day at Westmoreland County Community College.

“As much as it broke my heart to make the decision to cancel it, we had to face the realities of ‘What happens if?’ ” said Simpson, the coordinator for the county coaches meet.

“I am tickled that others have stepped up. Greensburg Central Catholic is kind of spearheading it, for the new version of the county meet. It fortunately will look like the old version. There are some different requirements and support as far as legal backings. It all comes down to giving the kids the opportunity to run.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at or via Twitter .

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