Prior to his sophomore year at Northwestern Lehigh, Tyler Stelmack made a decision that impacted his athletic career.

As a freshman, Stelmack followed in the footsteps of his brother, Kyle, a 2009 Northwestern graduate, and was a member of the Tigers football team.

A solid track and field season running the 1,600 and 3,200 meter races last spring convinced Tyler to turn his talents to cross country.

The gridiron squad's loss turned out to be a major gain for the Tiger harriers, as Stelmack emerged as one of the top runners in District 11 and the State.

Stelmack proved his mettle at the State's top cross country showcase, the PIAA Championships in Hershey, where he finished in 35th place in Class AA, third among D-11 qualifiers in the race.

What made Stelmack's showing even more impressive is that he had to recover from an illness at the Colonial League Championships that threatened to cut his rookie season short.

Stelmack's performance has earned him TIMES NEWS Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year honors.

Stelmack started out as a back-up quarterback, but his success in the distance races in track was a harbinger of things to come.

As a freshman, his top time in the 1,600 was four minutes, 47 seconds, while his best time in the 3,200 was 10:40.

"I didn't start running until February," said Stelmack, who also plays basketball for the Tigers. "Before that, I played football and I didn't do long distance. The success I had in track was my deciding factor."

The promise Stelmack showed as a distance runner came to the attention of Northwestern Head Cross Country Coach Chris Stitzel.

"Our assistant coach, Tim Churetta, helps out with the track team, and he tried to get him to come out (for cross country), but we knew he played football, like his brother," said Stitzel. "I said, 'are we going to get him?'

"Cody Reinert (one of the Tigers' senior runners this season) said he thought Tyler was coming out for our team, and when Tyler's name was on the sign-up sheet we passed around in May, it was like we hit the jackpot."

Stelmack started working out with the cross country team over the summer, and his potential was immediately apparent.

"He ran track, but that was mostly speed," mentioned Stitzel. "He came to our workouts over the summer and he ran hard with our other runners on those hot summer days, and it paid off."

"We ran about 50 miles a week," recalled Stelmack. "I realized a lot during the first few races. When ran the first invitational, I found out how I compared with runners from other schools."

During that first Invitational at Moravian Academy, Stelmack finished second in Class AA. He also placed fourth at the Bulldog Invitational at Northern Lehigh, 15th at the Centaur Invitational at DeSales University, and medaled with a 17th place at the PIAA Foundational Invitational, held on the same course as the State Meet.

Stelmack was undefeated in his six Colonial League cluster meets as the Tigers set a school record for wins with a 21-5 mark. He had high hopes of becoming the Tigers' first Colonial All-League champion since Bruce Kite turned the trick in 1996.

Unfortunately, a virus had Stelmack running the Colonial Meet with a hundred-plus degree fever, which contributed to a subpar 14th place finish on the DeSales course.

"That was kind of a downer," related Stelmack. "I went from being undefeated in the regular season to finishing 14th. After that, my goal was to take it a week at a time and place high enough at Districts to make it to States."

"We knew he wasn't himself at leagues, but we didn't know how sick he was and that he ran with a fever until the next day," said Stitzel. "He was upset, but we took him aside and told him to shake it off, that it wasn't his day."

Stelmack fought off his illness and was able to finish sixth at Districts, then shaved 29 seconds off his PIAA Foundation time at States to end his campaign on a high note.

Stelmack has achieved a lot during his first full season and has learned what he needs to do to get even better.

"I want to improve my upper body strength for next year so I can push myself harder," said Stelmack. "My goal is to improve on my league meet finish, and if I make it States again, get in the top 25."

"He's just an animal," praised Stitzel. "Whatever we tell him, he goes out there and does it. He had an awesome season. He has has the heart and desire, and the way he's going, he can definitely medal at States next year if he's healthy."