Back in September, Zach Fleming made a decision.

The Northern Lehigh senior began his season as a wide receiver on the Bulldogs' football team, which was enjoying a successful campaign, eventually finishing with a 10-3 record and playing for the District 11 Class AA title.

On the morning of Sept. 19, Fleming watched the Bulldog Invitational cross country race. The Northern Lehigh boys, hampered by early season injuries, finished 20th out of the 23 teams in their own invitational.

Fleming felt he could help the Bulldog harriers and decided to trade his football helmet for running spikes.

The move paid big dividends for both Fleming and the Nolehi distance squad.

Fleming joined the cross country team for its Colonial League home meet on Oct. 1, and by the time the season was completed on Nov. 7, he was not only the 'Dawgs' top runner, he was THE TIMES NEWS area's highest finisher at the PIAA State Championships at Hershey.

Fleming's rise led to a resurgence by the 'Dawgs, who finished second to Notre Dame of Green Pond at both the Colonial League and District 11 Class AA meets and qualifying for States as a team.

For his performance, Fleming has earned TN Male Cross County Athlete of the Year honors.

While he was new to cross country, distance running isn't foreign to Fleming, who ran the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 meters for the 'Dawgs' track team as a junior. He is the defending District 11 Class AA 3,200 champion, placing 17th at the PIAA State meet with a time of 9:58.30. He finished third in the 1,600 at Districts, missing a State berth by half a second.

Fleming, who is also a member of the 'Dawgs' wrestling squad, is a versatile athlete who possesses a 6-3 frame that enables him to take the long strides that can gobble up ground.

"Zach showed what kind of talent he has," said Northern Lehigh cross country coach Dave Oertner. "He was the third runner to finish out of District 11 at States, and he did it with one month of training. He was just starting to get in running shape by the end of the season."

Oertner has coached some standout runners during his tenure at the Slatington school, including former State champion Bob Chandler and State medalist Matt Oertner, but Fleming's rapid development was something to savor itself.

"You don't usually get people like that," related the No. Lehigh mentor. "With Bobby Chandler and Matt, you knew they were good as freshman. Zach got a late start. Last year was his first year of track. He didn't take up the sport until later, but he has that kind of ability. He's a strong runner, and he made an impact. He's just getting started."

Fleming's move turned around not only his season but that of the cross country team.

"Football wasn't going very well for me," admitted Fleming. "The team was doing well, but I didn't get enough playing time. I felt cross country would be better for my track career. Most of the kids at States for track last year had experience with cross country, and I feel track gives me a better chance to go to college."

Despite having second thoughts about football as a senior, Fleming went out for the team anyway. "I had played football my whole career, and I wanted to give it another chance," he mentioned.

"At the Invitational, I talked to the cross country kids, and they told me the season wasn't going well because of the injuries. I felt I could help them."

The lure of cross country proved to be too strong, and Fleming sent Oertner a midseason Email asking to join the harriers. Oertner told him he could, as long as it was cleared by No. Lehigh football coach Joe Tout, who agreed to release Fleming from his team.

"Joe Tout deserves credit, because he looked out for the kid's best interest," noted Oertner.

The timing of Fleming's arrival couldn't have been better for the 'Dawgs.

"We were hurting at the Invitational," remarked Oertner. "We had guys injured, but the amazing thing is, the team kept working hard. The guys who were running kept their focus, and when we got healthy, Zach came out. It all happened at the right time, and everything fell into place."

Because he came out late, Fleming had to continue his conditioning through the league and District meets, times when other runners are often tapering their mileage and cutting back on training to prepare for the season's biggest races. That didn't deter him. "That's the way I always train anyway. I always train my hardest," stated Fleming,

Fleming placed 12th at the Colonial Meet at DeSales University with a time of 18:25.4, then was the 'Dawgs' top finisher at the District Meet at Bethlehem Municipal Golf Course, placing 13th in 17:54.

He saved his fastest race for States, however, with his time of 17:46 placing him 57th out of 289 runners in Class AA.

Fleming is proof that it's not how one starts, but how one finishes that matters.