Knoch cross country teams hope to unseat Riverview atop section

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Sunday, September 22, 2019 | 5:33 PM


The Knoch boys and girls cross country teams have a lot on their plates with long- and short-term goals in mind.

Both are positioning themselves for a month from now, when they hope to improve on 2018 WPIAL championship finishes — the boys were ninth and the girls 10th — and challenge for trips to states.

In the more immediate future, Tuesday to be exact, the teams will host Riverview in a Division II, Section 1 meet that could decide the section titles.

Knoch coach Wess Brahler said there are a lot of positives going for both teams with depth from a mix of veterans and younger runners leading the charge.

“We are into our third month of training as we continue to build on what we did over the summer,” he said. “The kids have bought in and put in the work to be successful. We are really getting into the speed and racing part of it. We’re really focused on a span of good racing right now.”

Knoch and Riverview entered the season as the favorites in the section. The Raiders squads have had a sustained level of success, and both won last year’s section titles with undefeated records.

Both Riverview teams qualified for the PIAA championships in Class A.

The Knights hope to unseat Riverview, but senior Braden Zukowski, who finished 21st last year in the boys WPIAL Class AA race and qualified for states, knows it will be a challenge.

“It’s a big meet, and everyone is extremely excited for it,” he said. “We know we’re going to have great competition, and I think it will help us get some of our best times.”

Sammy Jo Barnes, a senior and the top Knoch girls runner, is excited for the opportunity.

“We know it’s going to be close,” she said. “This year, we want it, and we want it bad. We know we are in a great position to take it, but we have to be at our best.”

The Knoch boys returned six of the top seven who ran at WPIALs last year: Zukowski, seniors Aaron Plyler and Holden Stallsmith and juniors Daniel Deal, Ethan Wymer and Mike Formica.

Formica, Brahler said, has come on and also is leading the way for the boys squad.

Junior Luke Klutschkowski and senior Will Crytzer continue to be in the mix.

“We’re just getting more mentally focused for the end of the season in everything we do, from workout runs to meets,” Zukowski said.

Experience also returned on the girls side as the top six from WPIALs are back with some new runners at the top of the lineup.

Barnes, sixth in Class AA at WPIALs last year and 30th at states, began the season with a fourth-place finish in the Class A/AA race at the Cal (Pa.) Invitational. She added a ninth-place medal in the Class AA race at Saturday’s PIAA Foundation meet in Hershey.

“That gives Sammy Jo a lot of confidence going into the second half of the season,” Brahler said. “Her ultimate goal is to get back to states and earn a medal.”

A pair of sophomores, Elyse Chess and Yumiko Kuo, are in the top tier of the girls lineup. They were second and third on the team at Saturday’s meet.

Senior Heather Wittmer returned this season after not running cross country the past two years. A member of the Knoch girls soccer program in 2017 and last year, Wittmer did maintain her status as a member of the Knights track and field team.

Brahler said he also has been able to count on good performances from seniors Amelia Walls and Megan Swantner and sophomores Jaydon Crawford and Jocelyne Holko — all returning WPIAL runners.

“The good thing with depth is that it gives you the opportunity to have competition within the teams,” Brahler said. “The competition raises everyone’s level. To be successful at the WPIAL and state level, it takes more than one kid. You need a complete team if you want to go out there and impact a race.”

As the Cal (Pa.) Invitational was an early opportunity for teams to get on the same course that will host the WPIAL championships, Saturday’s PIAA Foundation meet afforded teams the same opportunity in advance of the Nov. 6 state meet.

“It was just great competition overall, some of the best teams in the state of Pennsylvania,” Brahler said. “It was a great gauge to see where we are at this point of the season. It also gave us a good look at the course and helps us develop tactics and strategies if we are fortunate enough to qualify for states.”

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

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