Led by PIAA qualifier Kefimba Cisse, Gateway runners off to strong start

Sunday, September 10, 2023 | 11:01 AM

Kefimba Cisse is on a mission for his senior season on the Gateway boys cross country team.

Veteran Gators coach Tom LaBuff sees it and hopes Cisse can take advantage of the prime running opportunities in his final varsity year.

Cisse finished in the lead pack at the season-opening Gateway Invitational on Sept. 2 at Boyce Park. He finished third overall in 17 minutes, 35.29 seconds.

“He is looking strong, a little bit stronger than he was last year,” LaBuff said.

“He didn’t have a particularly great race on Saturday, but it was still fine. He was pressing a bit. He actually ran better in our scrimmage whenever we were doing to a tempo run. But it was a good start to the season. He continues to mature with his approach to races, and he should have a fine year and move up in the WPIAL ranks.”

Optimism in a WPIAL improvement is there for Cisse as all he needs to do is look at the betterment of his performance from 2021 to last year.

Cisse placed 16th at last year’s WPIAL championships at Cal (Pa.), a jump of 51 places from 67th as a sophomore. He was one of the 10 individual qualifiers from the race to the PIAA championships in Hershey.

At states, Cisse ran to 97th overall.

Coming back to race Gateway’s Boyce Park course last Wednesday, Cisse bested the field in a tri-meet with Altoona and Latrobe.

In sunny and hot conditions, he took first with ease, running to a time of 18:01.3, nearly 50 seconds faster than runner-up Camdyn Woomer from Altoona.

Four other Gateway boys runners who competed at WPIALs last year — senior Caleb Bell and juniors Kairell McCoy, Darren Johnson and Nathan Eichenmiller — are back to help the team make the jump from 23rd in last year’s WPIAL team standings.

Eichenmiller followed Cisse among the Gateway boys runners at the Gateway Invite. He checked in 32nd in 20:03.14. McCoy was 37th.

“They all are improved, and they had shown that in workouts,” LaBuff said.

“They were a little overly conservative in the first mile (at the Gateway Invitational), and that is OK this early. I think they over-respected the course. I think they expected some of the kids to come back on the second lap worse than they did. I think a lot of that is just becoming more comfortable running at the varsity level. They were on the varsity team last year, but they really weren’t varsity level competitors. This year, they are.

“With Kefimba up front, and their experience from last year, they should be a pretty solid team. It will be interesting to see where they end up at the section level. I don’t think they will contend for one of the four or five top spots at WPIALs, but they should be pretty competitive.”

LaBuff said the restructured Gateway home course at Boyce Park was again challenging for the teams who navigated it at the opening invitational.

“It’s always a good meet for the teams. The field is always strong with competitive runners,” LaBuff said.

“We were disappointed to lose Norwin a couple of years ago, but hopefully we can get them back. It is a strength course. Kids come in and a lot of them think they are in good shape. Even with the change in the course, it’s still tougher than most of the courses they will run into this year.

“It gives them a good starting point. The competition is a big reason the coaches say they keep bringing their teams back. This field was deeper than last year because we had more teams (13) and the teams were stronger overall.”

Most of the teams at the Gateway Invitational, including Gateway, were slated to test themselves Saturday at the annual Red, White and Blue Invitational at White Oak Park.

Sophomore Gianna Laurenti, also a key member of the Gateway girls swim team in the winter months, returns after a positive debut season at the varsity level and hopes to improve on her 58th-place finish in last year’s WPIAL Class 3A race.

She was the lone Gators representative in the girls race at the Gateway Invitational. She took 18th overall in a deep field of runners in 23:47.46.

“Gianna is ahead of where she was last year,” LaBuff said.

“The one thing is that swimming is her No. 1 sport, no doubt, and that’s OK. She also loves to run. She came in after having been swimming all summer. You can tell the experience and confidence she has. Even though her invitational place was about the same as last year, it was a much deeper field, so I was happy with where she was.”

Laurenti leads a Gateway team that currently has just four members, one shy of the number necessary for team competition.

LaBuff said it was tough losing Grace Byrne, a sophomore last year who moved into the Shaler School District in the offseason.

While the focus is on individual performances, LaBuff said there is talent among the quartet which includes returning junior Madison Lu and freshmen newcomers Maleah McKnight and Kailee Allen.

Allen paced the Gators in the tri-meet with Altoona and Latrobe. She took eighth with a time of 24:37.

She didn’t run at the Gateway Invitational as she rested what LaBuff said was a hamstring issue.

“I think that when Kailee can get healthy, she will run close to Gianna,” LaBuff said.

“She is definitely a talent and has a chance to make an impact.”

LaBuff said Lu also is much improved from last year and is expected to make that leap. McKnight also is a member of the Gateway girls basketball team.

“It’s disappointing that we don’t have a full team, but the four we do have are looking to have strong seasons and improve at their own pace,” LaBuff said.

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at mlove@triblive.com.


More Cross Country

Gatorade picks Mt. Lebanon’s Logan St. John Kletter as top girls cross country runner in Pa.
Butler’s Drew Griffith tops Ringgold’s Ryan Pajak to win cross country national championship
Westmoreland County Senior Spotlight: Ligonier Valley’s Clara Wallace
A-K Valley Senior Spotlight: Riverview’s Gwyn Fichte
Plan comes together for Pine-Richland sophomore in cross country postseason