Hampton cross country team finds its stride in Class AA

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Saturday, October 3, 2020 | 11:01 AM


Talk about a kick to the shins.

Hampton senior Aidan Sawyer figured his chances of making the PIAA cross country championships were as good as ever after the program was dropped to Class AA during the 2020-22 enrollment-based realignment.

“States definitely seems more attainable this year than any other year,” he said.

Then covid-19 put a major hurdle in the way.

The PIAA on Sept. 23 announced it was cutting back the state qualifiers for all fall team sports because of pandemic concerns.

So, instead of the top three cross country teams plus the top 15 finishers who aren’t on one of those teams reaching Hershey, the field now is limited to one team and five non-team qualifiers.

“We just got that news,” Sawyer said. “We’re going to run our best (at WPIALs), and we still want to be a top-three team, even if we don’t get to go (to states). It would just be nice to know we could do that.”

While the Talbots will have to wait another year to truly gain the benefits of dropping out of big-school Class AAA, they continue to train hard for coach Dean Longwell.

They were scheduled to run at the Bald Eagle Invitational on Oct. 3 at White Oak Park in North Versailles, which will be home for the WPIAL individual championships on Oct. 28 or 29. They also will run at the Tri-State championship Oct. 21 or 22 at White Oak Park.

Hampton already has run a big meet at White Oak, finishing seventh out of 18 Class AA teams at the Red, White and Blue Classic on Sept. 18-19.

Freshman Nathan Garrett was the top finisher for the Talbots, placing 26th out of 116 runners with a time of 17 minutes, 58 seconds. He was second among all freshmen in the Class AA race, trailing only Ringgold phenom Ryan Pajak, who won the race in 16:02.

“That was a nice surprise,” Longwell said of Garrett’s performance.

Sawyer placed 33rd in 18:10 followed by another Hampton freshman, Dale Hall, who placed 36th in 18:23, good for fourth best among all ninth-graders.

Other Hampton runners included junior Jackson McGrath (61st, 19:09) and sophomore Tyler Welch (65th, 19:21). Junior Quentin Romero-Lauro and senior Austin Garrett finished 71st and 72nd.

The Talbots boys won the Class AA junior varsity race at the Classic with seven runners in the top 27. Junior Michael Belch, who has been dealing with hamstring issues, finished first overall in 18:56.

“We really have a lot of depth this year,” said Longwell, who has just two seniors on his 16-man roster. “We have a nice pack of kids.”

The dual-meet schedule remains as grueling as ever. Due to geography and logistics — the Hampton girls still are a Class AAA program — the Hampton boys remain in Section 3-AAA, by far the toughest section in WPIAL cross country.

The section has produced the past 15 WPIAL Class AAA team champions, including 13 by North Allegheny. Butler, North Allegheny and Seneca Valley have finished 1-2-3, in no particular order, for three of the past four WPIAL team titles.

But Hampton, of course, will compete against Class AA runners at the WPIAL championship. Hampton is the third-biggest school in Class AA cross country with 350 boys in grades 9-11.

Sawyer believes the rugged dual-meet schedule will help them in the long run.

“It’s definitely not a bad thing,” he said. “Sometimes it’s annoying when they have five guys that just blow by you. … But as a team, we are just as motivated by beating the other guy on our team as we are beating the guys on the other team. I’m telling you. It doesn’t matter who we are running against. We are going to try to outrace each other.”

Sawyer, who peaked at 35 miles a week this summer, is beating the stopwatch. He set a personal best in an early season tri-meet with Shaler and North Hills at Hartwood Acres with a time of 17:31 over the 3.1-mile course, knocking 59 seconds off his previous best.

“He put in more work this summer than any other year,” Longwell said.

As for the tougher road to Hershey, the fifth-place qualifier for the WPIAL Class AA meet the past three years — which this year will be the final runner to advance — had an average time of 17:18.

If he does manage to reach states, Sawyer can give some credit to his summer job.

“This really wasn’t a conscious choice, but I got a job at Walmart pushing carts,” he said, “and pushing them up that little hill definitely made my legs a little bit stronger.”

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