Defending WPIAL champion Hampton runners focusing on Hershey
Saturday, September 9, 2023 | 11:01 AM
The two-time defending WPIAL Class 2A champion Hampton boys cross country team is aiming to take another step forward.
“The WPIAL is something that we definitely want to win again, but the big focus is improving the placing at the state meet,” said senior Dale Hall, the Talbots’ top runner and reigning state champion in the 1,600. “Aiming for the big one will take care of the smaller one along the way, hopefully.”
The Talbots return their top seven runners in a bid to become the first WPIAL Class 2A three-peat champion since Quaker Valley won six in a row from 2007-12.
“There is always pressure and there’s a target on the back,” coach Dean Longwell said, “but it’s nice knowing that we have everybody back.”
While they are heavy favorites to defend their district title, the Talbots are working to climb the leaderboard at the PIAA cross country championships Nov. 4. Last season they placed fourth at states — the highest finish in program history — but they left Hershey with a feeling that they could have done more. The Talbots were only 11 points behind the runner-ups (Danville and Lewisburg) and with junior Nathan Gardner hampered with an injury, their replacement fifth-place runner finished 91 spots behind their fourth-place runner.
“I think right there (in Hershey), they started thinking about this season,” Longwell said. “They are motivated to try to be as high up in the state meet as they can.”
The Talbots attracted 25 runners to the team — one of the biggest turnouts in Longwell’s 14 seasons — and opened 2023 with a 15-47 victory over Mars on Aug. 30. They were scheduled to face their first big test at the Red, White & Blue Invitational on Sept. 9 at White Oak Park, the site of the 2023 WPIAL championships on Oct. 26.
The Talbots also will tune up for their postseason run with invitationals at Boardman (Sept. 16), Grove City (Oct. 7) and the Tri-State (Oct. 19).
Joining Hall in the lineup are junior Chris Belch (ninth at WPIALs), seniors Jacob Bonnar (13th) and Layne Haught (21st) and junior Nathan Gardner (46th).
Other returning runners are senior Liam Butler and junior Miles McKinney.
The top newcomers include freshmen Josh Wukitch, who placed fifth in the opener against Mars, and Lu Santos.
“I’m really excited about that fifth spot this year because we have some freshmen coming in who are doing really well and we have had some sophomores take a big step up and they are getting hungry,” Hall said. “We have a bunch of guys who are close together (in the running pack) and really want to improve.”
Hall will lead the way. Last season he crossed the finish line at the WPIAL championships in fifth place with a time of 16 minutes, 27.3 seconds.
Then in the spring, he became the first PIAA track champion from Hampton — boy or girl — in 41 years with a gold-medal run in the 1,600. Along the way, he broke a 45-year-old school record with a time of 4:08.52.
“Nothing Dale does anymore surprises me,” Longwell said.
Hall said the Talbots will not overlook anyone on their drive to a third consecutive WPIAL title. Their top competition will likely come from Montour, which returns five of its top six runners from last year’s fourth-place team, and Elizabeth Forward, which returns its top seven runners from a sixth-place team.
“We’re looking really good,” Hall said. “In my mind, we’re the favorites. … Anything can always happen, but there is no one thus far that I’ve seen that’s going to be a super huge concern. But anything can always happen.”
Longwell said once again Grove City is the team to beat in the state. The District 10 power returns five of its top seven runners from last year’s dominating PIAA Class 2A champion.
But he also calls this year’s Hampton team the best in program history.
“Obviously, Grove City is still the top dog. They are the ones we are chasing,” Longwell said. “We’ve always had some solid programs and individuals make states, but this is definitely the best group that’s ever gone through.”
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