HERSHEY - As she crossed the finish line, her dream of becoming a State champion finally realized, Lindsay Kerr raised her arms in triumph.
It was only after the Class AA race at Saturday's PIAA Cross Country Championships was completed that the Northwestern senior took the opportunity to look back.
Kerr wouldn't allow herself to do so during the race on the hilly 3.1 mile Parkview course outside of Hershey's Giant Center. She ran the final straightaway as if someone was hot on her heels.
That was a lesson she learned during last year's race on the same course, when she led during the first mile but ended up settling for fourth place when Kayleigh Perry of ELCO passed her down the stretch.
Once Kerr assumed the lead for good this time, there was no catching her. She broke the tape in 18 minutes, 56 seconds, a good 16 seconds ahead of Perry, to become the first District 11 and Colonial League winner of the PIAA Girls AA race.
Kerr also became the first girls cross country state champion from THE TIMES NEWS area and the area's third PIAA titlist overall, joining Northern Lehigh's Bob Chandler, who did it at Penn State University in 1992, and Tamaqua's Isaac Dunkelberger, who won on the Hersheypark Stadium White Field course in 2005.
Led by Kerr and junior Katie Hallingstad, who earned a Top 25 medal with a 21st place finish, the Northwestern girls came away with their highest State finish ever, placing third with 154 points behind defending champion Central Cambria (72) and just one point away from the runner-up trophy behind Union City (153).
Also from the TN Area, Tamaqua sophomore Amber Carroll placed 12th in Class AA to take home her second straight state AA medal. Other competitors in AA were Tamaqua's Ricky Clemson, the Northern Lehigh boys team and Stephanie Pryor, and, in Class AAA, Pleasant Valley's Evan Makuvek and Samantha Klingel.
"It feels so good," said Kerr, standing barefoot in the grass near the finish line following her race on the sunny but frosty morning. "This is my last high school race with these girls. Coming down that straightaway, it felt so good.
"I waited so long for this. After my sophomore year, this is what I wanted to do. I really wanted to win something big like this. I worked so hard for this, and our girls worked so hard this season, really pushing each other. I felt I had to accomplish it for myself, but I accomplished something for the girls team as well. It's what we wanted to do the entire season."
Kerr also competed in girls soccer her first two years at Northwestern, but after finishing 99th at the State Meet as a freshman and 34th as a sophomore, she decided to dedicate herself to running cross country and track. That move paid glorious dividends in her last State race.
"It feels awesome" said Northwestern coach Chris Stitzel, his hair in a pink mohawk, the Lady Tigers' favorite color, for the occasion of States. "This is what she's worked all four years for, to get to this point. I'm just so happy. All the hard work paid off. She was mentally ready for this race and she went after it."
In order to prepare for this year's State race, Kerr and the Tigers ran in the PIAA Foundation Invitational Blue Girls (AA) race back on Sept. 26, and Kerr finished second to Forest Hill's Leigh Ann Wirfel, who was last year's State AA runner-up, with Wirfel running 19:06 to Kerr's 19:30.
"We has a regular season meet on Thursday, so we raced 30 hours before," explained Kerr. "I also started getting sick right on that weekend, and I definitely needed to improve my downhill. It was pretty much all strategy coming into that invitational, because it was a pre-State thing. You don't know if you are going to win or not, so you try and figure out and study how everyone ran and when they are going to go."
Coming into States, Kerr felt she needed to run sub-19 minutes to have a shot at the title.
"I was shooting for under 19," related Kerr, who ran 19:12 on the course a year ago. "I knew last year Sophia Ziemian (of Lewisburg), who won, she did under 19, (18:52). That's really what it takes to win it, and it's a good time to reach for, too, so I wanted to go for that."
Kerr figured Wirfel and Perry would be her main competition, but Wirfel feel dropped behind early and ended up in 24th place, leaving Kerr and Perry to battle it out.
"I took the lead right before the gravel downhill, where you cross over where you started. It was around 2 miles, I think," stated Kerr. "The three of us, me, Leigh Ann and Kayleigh were kind of switching back and forth. We lost Leigh Ann, so it was me and Kayleigh for awhile. We were going back and forth. I tried not to let Kayleigh get away on the downhills and keep her in contact most of the race, and it worked.
"I knew I had it won when I crossed the finish line. I didn't take it for granted after what happened last year when Kayleigh came whizzing by me and I got fourth. I didn't know the gap, but you don't know you've won it until you're done."
"Lindsay just wanted it, and I told her to run a smart race," said Stitzel. "She went after it, took on the last hill here and won it by a good margin. Her goal as to break 19 and bring home the gold."
Hallingstad, a junior, placed 205th at States as a freshman and 56th last year in 20:47 before lowering her time to 20:10 to capture a medal.
"In leagues I got fourth and at districts I got third, so I was kind of excited that I improved," beamed Hallingstad. "I felt good during the race. Coming here, the team was very excited. We were looking to do well and we did."
Also competing for the Tigers were senior Ramzy Burns, who placed 42nd out of 292 finishers in 20:50; senior Megan Handwerk, who was 118th in 21:45; freshman Anna Fricchione, who was 124th in 21:48; and sophomores Natalie Boehm (141st in 21:56) and Sarah Ribecky (244th in 23:58).
"We worked really hard for this and I'm glad we can call ourselves third in the State," said Burns after the District 11 champs improved on last year's seventh place team finish.
Carroll earns medal
Tamaqua's Carroll, who placed 18th last year in 19:54, rebounded from a viral infection in her throat that caused her to get sick and not finish the Schuylkill All-League Meet. After finishing sixth at Districts, Carroll rethought her usual race strategy of going out fast for her State strategy.
"Instead of trying to sprint in the beginning, I tried to lay back a little bit and move forward as the race went on," said Carroll, who ended up 12th in 19:49. "I just wanted to improve on last year. I wanted to work on the hills, because I knew that was the best place to try and pass people. I tried to go faster up the hill.
"It feels good, because I was six places better than last year, so I'm happy with it."
Also in Girls AA, No. Lehigh senior Pryor, competing in her third State race, placed 135th in 21:52. Her best finish was last year, when she ended up 94th in 21:22.
Northern Lehigh, the District 11 AA runner-up to Notre Dame of Green Pond, placed 17th out of 25 teams with 464 points, behind champion York Suburban's 76 points.
Senior Zach Fleming, who joined the team midway through the season from the Bulldogs' football team, led the way with a 57th place finish, followed by junior Austin Danish (171st in 18:46), senior Ryan Fronheiser (188th in 18:54), senior Aaron Rarick (232nd in 19:32), junior Scott Showak (237th in 19:41), sophomore Vaughn Reese (287th in 23:02) and junior Mike Hoffman (288th in 23:14).
"We talked about trying to get our top five guys in the top 175, and that was about 19 minutes" said No. Lehigh coach Dave Oertner. "We thought if we all ran great, we could get five guys there. We didn't run great, we ran solid and we were close to that, so we can't argue with that.
"The kids handled themselves well the whole week. They came to compete. They knew what we were up against, but they wanted to do their best and I'm proud of the way they performed."
Tamaqua's Clemson, a senior, competed in his first State race and placed 231st in 19:30.
Pleasant Valley junior Klingel competed in her third AAA State race and placed 156th in 21:06. Her best showing was as a freshman, when she placed 33rd in 19:45, but she did improve her time from a year ago, when she was 136th, by four seconds.
Bears senior Makuvec made his first State meet and placed 237th in 18:47.
"It's tough to get one athlete out here, let alone two," said Pleasany Valley coach George Fair. "The two of them worked really hard. Samantha went two years in a row, and with this being her third year, there are no guarantees. She never took it for granted she'd get a third one in. As a senior, Evan's goal was to get to states and it's a hard thing to do.