Freeport runners ready to compete at WPIAL championships

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Wednesday, October 27, 2021 | 1:06 PM


Cross country runners across Western Pennsylvania have been gearing up for the WPIAL championships set for Thursday at Cal (Pa.).

Two teams that hope to contend for top finishes in Class 2A are the Freeport boys and girls.

Freeport’s boys squad logged an 8-1 record to place second behind Riverview (9-0) in Division II, Section 4. Riverview dealt the Yellowjackets their only section loss. The Freeport girls ended up 7-3 against section opponents.

“The boys team has been running strong all season,” coach Melissa Schaeffer said. “We have a solid group of 10 runners who have all contributed to the success of the varsity team. The goal for the boys team is to finish in the top five in WPIAL 2A.

“The girls team has battled injury and illness all season, missing several key runners. The goal (at the WPIAL meet) is for each runner to run her best time on the Cal U course and finish the season strong.”

One of the regular-season highlights for Freeport was the performance of both squads at the Bald Eagle Invitational held Oct. 2 at White Oak Park.

Freeport’s boys placed second in the Class 2A race, finishing behind Montour and ahead of Elizabeth Forward. The girls captured first place ahead of Elizabeth Forward and Ambridge.

The boys team is led by the senior trio of Jacob Schaeffer, who is the coach’s son, Ben Perka and Blair Beck.

Schaeffer earned a medal at the Cal (Pa.), Red White and Blue, Bald Eagle and Slippery Rock invitationals this season.

“Jacob has been on the team since eighth grade,” said Schaeffer, Freeport’s veteran coach. “Over the years, he has developed a true love for cross country. He loves the team aspect of the sport and has formed some amazing friendships over the years. Jacob has trained consistently throughout the years and is having a successful season.

“His goal is to qualify for the PIAA championships. It has been a blessing to have been able to coach him the last few years.”

Schaeffer is proud of the Yellowjackets’ performance this season. Along with Freeport, 2A teams in Division II Section 4 consisted of Burrell, Deer Lakes, Highlands, Knoch and Southmoreland.

Greensburg Central Catholic, Redeemer Lutheran, Elllis, Riverview and Shady Side Academy were listed as A.

“This boys team is the best team I’ve been a part of the past three years,” Schaeffer said. “We have really good runners with some excellent talent. They put everything on the line when it comes time to race.

“I believe we will give it our all at the WPIAL finals because there is nothing to lose. It’s the last meet of the season for most runners. For the underclassmen, there is always a next year. As for the upperclassmen, time is running out, and for seniors like me, this is my last WPIAL ever. I want to make it one to remember.”

Schaeffer is a member of the school’s stage crew and helps build stage props for the shows. He also participates in the concert choir, and plays the piano.

At this time, however, Schaeffer’s thought process is entrenched on a trip to the state championships.

“When I was a freshman, I watched one of my favorite teammates run at the state meet in Hershey. That is when I made a goal: I decided I wanted to run at states, too,” he said. “This year is my year to do it. I have done everything possible to make it. I just need to put myself in the position during the race to qualify.”

Following high school, Schaeffer plans to apply to the carpenter’s union in Pittsburgh and serve an apprenticeship for four years.

Other integral runners for the Yellowjackets include freshmen Michael Braun and Ben Brestensky, junior James Hower and sophomore Luke Hassler.

“This season has gone very well for us despite injuries to key runners,” Braun said. “All of us have worked very hard, and it has shown in our improvement and growth as a team.

“I am proud of our team and coaches this season. All of us have put in a lot of work to get to where we are.”

Schaeffer, Braun and Perka placed third, fourth and ninth, respectively, at the Baldwin Eagle invite. Beck, Hassler and Brestensky crossed the finish line in 11th, 15th and 17th place.

“I would like to go to states; it isn’t out of reach,” Braun said. “I will have to really focus on it and perform at my best if I want to make it happen.

“I would like to see our team get top 10 for 2A schools (at the WPIAL meet). I think that would be a very good accomplishment for us.”

Braun plans to compete in the distance events in track and field in the spring.

For the Freeport girls team, junior Anita Bhat has been the pace-setter for freshmen Addyson Kristofik and Grace Kristine, sophomores Mikayla Bodily and Taylor Schaeffer, senior Elsie Lindsay and junior Nora Mahan.

Sophomore Erin Schaeffer, Jacob’s younger sister, has been out of the lineup since mid-September because of a tendon injury.

Bhat, Bodily, Schaeffer and Mahan placed in the top 10 at the Baldwin Eagle invite at fifth, eighth, ninth and 10th, respectively. Kristine and Lindsay followed in 12th and 13th place.

“I am very proud of all the hard work we have put into this season and the long hours spent preparing for the meets,” Bhat said. “One the proudest moments for the girls team, and one of my highlights, was when we took the championship at the Bald Eagle Invitational. I think it shows the dedication and commitment the team has. I have really enjoyed this season.

“At the WPIAL finals, I’m hoping our team can PR on the Cal U course. It is a difficult course, and there are many difficult hills, but I’m hoping we can pull through and put in our best effort. I think it is going to be an exciting race.”

Bhat, who is a member of the girls track team at Freeport, has a strong background in dancing. She is on the competitive dance team at Lisa Marie’s School of Dance, and at the high school she participates in the musicals as well as several clubs including: Ski, Key, Environmental and Empowerment.

“Something I would like to add is that I am so thankful for our coaches,” Bhat said, “because they work so hard to allow the team to be the best we can, and they are always encouraging us to do well. I can tell they really care about us and about how we do.”

Bhat is a third-year runner for the Yellowjackets. Her coach is anticipating a solid effort for her at the WPIAL championships.

“As a freshman, Anita missed qualifying for PIAAs by a few seconds,” Schaeffer said. “I would like to see her return to that form.”

A total of 15 girls and 15 boys teams competed Class 2A in Division II this season.

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