Pine-Richland cross country driven by team accolades

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Saturday, September 26, 2020 | 11:01 AM


There’s a cure for the bittersweet emotions Pine-Richland felt last November at the PIAA cross country championships.

The Rams were excited to support junior Meredith Price and sophomore Natalie McLean at states, but dissatisfied with placing fourth at WPIALs, one spot shy of girls team qualifying for the meet.

They know the remedy is to run well enough at WPIALs this season to avoid a case of déjà vu.

“It was a little disappointing, but still exciting to see how well we did and how close we were,” coach Mark Hunkele said. “The expectations are higher every year, and now we have a very strong girls team and a very strong boys team. These are the best teams we’ve had in years.”

Fresh off a recent win against North Allegheny, Pine-Richland’s girls team won’t look too far ahead.

“I’ve imagined since I was a freshman qualifying for states as a team, and it’s exciting to know that’s a realistic possibility,” Price said. “We did well past this week (against North Allegheny) without one of our top two runners, and we want to see how we do at WPIALs, but we know we have to improve.”

Price said they’ve learned from teams like the Tigers to grow as runners, particularly with their pack mentality. Price typically runs out in front with McLean and freshman Angelina Hunkele.

“Natalie and I were already running together, and with Angelina coming up to varsity, she just tried to run with us,” Price said. “After the first time trial, she joined us kind of naturally. Running together creates a lot of support for each other, not just in training but also mentally as a confidence booster.”

Juniors Elizabeth Hunkele and Audrey DeKunder are the Rams’ fourth and fifth runners with juniors Catherine London and Stella Fannie and sophomores Breanna Franchak and Elizabeth Shaffer closely following them.

“I think that depth gives our team a chance, along with North Allegheny and Seneca Valley, to go after the team WPIAL title and to compete in states,” Mark Hunkele said. “We want to get back to WPIALs with a chance to win, and then have a chance to win states.”

The boys team, Mark Hunkele said, has made significant progress after a 14th-place finish last season at the WPIAL championship, starting with senior Victor Williams who has emerged as an elite runner.

“I ran a lot over quarantine in the spring and summer, because it was the only way I could see my friends,” Williams said. “I definitely ran more than I ever have previously, and it’s really showing with how much I’ve cut times.”

Williams is often joined by senior Joseph London and freshman Kevin McLoughlin in the front pack.

“We knew how good Kevin was, and we challenged him in our first scrimmage meet,” Mark Hunkele said. “He was only eight seconds behind Victor. That really led to a light bulb for him that he can be right up there with other top guys.”

Senior George Nix and Anthony Hartwick and juniors Chris Fisher and Nick Labuda often finish close behind London and McLoughlin.

“We think the boys can be one of six or seven teams competing at WPIALs for the top three,” Mark Hunkele said. “We haven’t had seven boys who run in the 17s in a while.”

Williams’ goal has always been to individually qualify for states but said it would be more significant if the boys team qualifies together.

“I felt at the beginning of the season we could make top 10 at WPIALs, but after a few races I really felt like we had a chance,” Williams said. “We were able to beat Seneca Valley, and they were third in WPIAL last year. If we make it as a team, that would definitely be the best thing that could happen this year.”

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