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Cross country wrap-up: Tamaqua, Marian team success produced a sweet ending to season

There’s no doubt individual success is a big part of cross country.

But having that glory shared among teammates is an unquestionably unique ­- and often times unequaled - aspect of the sport.

Seeing the success of programs carry through the postseason and result in a trip to the PIAA Championships in Hershey is the sweetest way to end the year.

Both the Tamaqua boys and girls teams, along with the Marian boys, finished their seasons at states this past Saturday, capping milestone campaigns for each school.

The Blue Raider boys last went to states in 2007, capping a 10-0 season with a fourth-straight District 11 title, while the girls qualified in 2005 and also advanced in 2004 after winning district titles both years.

For Marian, this fall marked the first time the program had sent a boys team to states after a runner-up finish at districts. Senior Albin Petschauer also gave the Colts their first medalist for the boys team in school history with a 25th-place finish.

Tamaqua coach Tom Kanger, in his 21st year leading the program, knows how hard the mountain is to climb. And how difficult it is to get back.

“It was special to me. I took this team over in 2003, so it’s pretty special,” said Kanger. “I still always say to all the coaches when we joke and stuff, if we stay around long enough it all rotates through everybody. Pottsville’s had some amazing teams, Lehighton’s had great teams, obviously Marian has great teams, and North Schuylkill. But we all have to ride through rough parts and hopefully we cycle back around, and there’s some really good coaches out there.

“It was a great season. There was lots of competition in the league. The two Lehighton boys (Elijah Pagotto and Owen Serfass), they’re just amazing runners. We’re going to miss them (Lehighton) in the league next year. We all talk about that. Every time we ran an invite somewhere and those teams were there, you know you’re getting good competition.”

The competition – and camaraderie – is what has driven the programs at each school forward.

“It is, and honestly it’s all because iron sharpens iron. The team has been able to be together to support one another,” said Marian head coach Justin Huegel. “Everybody on our team this meet ran their best time on this course this year, which is awesome to see, at the right time, at the right course to be able to bring it all together.

“I can’t say enough of how proud I am of them for how they performed today, and as a team the first thing everybody did when they crossed the line was ask, ‘How’d Albin do?’ So to be able to see not only to bring a team but bring a family down here is awesome.”

Petschauer produced arguably the best run of his career in the biggest moment to earn the final medal in Class 1A with a 25th-place finish.

“He’s been so consistent,” said Huegel. “Every year he’s been able to come to work. He manages a lot between stuff he has to do for himself and for the sport, and for him to be able to manage all that shows his level of maturity and his commitment to his success.

“To be able to see him go from being a member of our first junior high program to this point now, is just, it’s a proud dad moment.”

Both Tamaqua teams were remarkably consistent throughout the season and placed second in Class 2A at districts to qualify for states.

The Blue Raider girls went unbeaten in Division 1 and claimed the Schuylkill League meet title, while the boys won the Division 1 title.

“They handled the pressure really well this year because there were a lot of things because they’re kind of marked I think from some of our teams in the past,” said Kanger. “Even if we don’t have a good team sometimes people want to beat us, and we’re just out here running. These guys handled a lot of pressure this season, and a lot of illnesses, which everybody has and stuff, and still came through.

“For the girls team losing somebody and still packing together and switching runners. For the guys team, there were times somebody was sick, but they were deep enough to have Adam (Schock), Jathan Krall, they ran really well.”

The girls team also overcame the loss of top runner Lexi Buchala, who missed the final meet of the year and the entire postseason. Buchala is also a talented swimmer and will set her sights on that sport.

“At the beginning of the season, I wasn’t really even talking about our girls or anything,” Kanger said. “And we lost our No. 1 (Lexi Buchala), and that was a tough cookie to swallow because she kind of woke the girls team up and was like, ‘Hey, I can run this.’ And then I said to them, I said, ‘If it wasn’t for her, you guys probably wouldn’t have started to try and run up that far.’

“So she kind of woke everybody up, even the freshmen, and they were like, ‘Oh, let’s go run with Lexi.’ Even though we lost her, she was a great leader. She was a first-year runner and she lit everything up and gave them the leadership that they needed.”

The Tamaqua girls team that ran at states featured a youthful group, with juniors Samantha Plasha, Isabella Jones, sophomores Mollie Walker and Cali Frantz and freshmen Bailey Pliska, Madelyn Schaefer and Lila Stegemerten.

“Every one of them was nervous when we went to the Schuylkill Haven Invite. So we went from the Schuylkill Haven Invite to the state meet in a short amount of time,” Kanger said of the team. “So it was great for them, because they took a lot from this meet. We will get them involved in a couple other big meets so they get used to this kind of competition, which is amazing, and get their confidence levels up. They just got so much out of today.”

Gaining experience in big meets is key to preparing for the postseason, which is why Marian competes in the Foundation Invite in Hershey early in the season.

“The reason we come to the Foundation race is because we don’t want that to be our only time down here,” said Huegel. “And to see how they were able to improve and when we were walking through the course and to hear them saying, ‘This is what we did last time that we need to improve this time,’ was really cool to see them take it as a learning experience for what they’re going to accomplish today. It was pretty cool at the Foundation race too that Albin was the last one to medal there also finishing in 20th and only the top 20 medaled at the invite.

“So it’s just really awesome to see everything come together like it has, and like I said before, I can’t say enough of how proud I am of our team and what they’ve been able to do, and their future is bright with the four freshmen that we have (Wade Eroh, Achilles Fitzpatrick, Chase Grier and James Gelatko). I don’t anticipate this being their last time down here as a group.”

And Kanger knows there’s no substitute for experience.

“And we just talked to the guys about that. They were talking about all the things that happened, and I said, ‘If we could have just got over that hump a year or two earlier (and made it to states), you would have had the experience,’” Kanger commented. “Because you look at the Danville teams, and all the other teams that are in there at the top and they’ve been here every single year, so they have that experience.”

The Colts, who also had seniors Alex Porambo and Lachlan Segedy, captured the Schuylkill League Division 2 title this season.

The success of the Schuylkill League was also something Kanger was proud of.

“It was pretty awesome to see all the teams here and watch all the runners, especially in Class 1A, you’re watching Minersville and Marian run for medals,” he said. “They’re right up there with teams. And same thing with the experience those guys have gotten. It was awesome to see Albin (Petschauer) medal. And thinking about the league, I saw some stats that we had 40-some members running here three years ago and now we have 50-plus members that were represented.”

The Blue Raiders have seen junior Levi Kunkel qualify for states all three years of his career so far, and classmate Anthony Marchetti also make it to Hershey two years in a row.

Seniors Jesse Gormley and Jathan Krall also balanced the cross country season with their commitment to the soccer program, which also qualified for districts.

“Jesse and Jathan, I think they might have missed one competition the whole season in one of the sports, so they’ve done 50 competitions this season,” Kanger said. “To be dedicated to that, and their time management has to be ridiculous. And they’re smart kids. It puts them on a whole other level.”

Junior Adam Schock was the team’s fourth runner Saturday, and Kanger hopes he can continue to improve along with Kunkel and Marchetti.

“So hopefully he got this experience, and he realizes when he goes into districts next year with the other two guys that have made it to states multiple times (Kunkel and Marchetti), he can as well,” said Kanger. “So if we can possibly get three qualifiers again, it puts our boys team right back in the race. That’s what we’re counting on. We have several freshmen that are coming up next year. Our eight graders that will be freshmen are very good runners. So hopefully we can got a streak going there with the guys, too.”

The team also returns junior Brody Boyce, but will lose Stephen Kieffer.

“Just a very special season. They’re great kids, and it was awesome that I kind of get dragged along with them,” Kanger said with a laugh.

The competition that drove them forward all season brought them together in Hershey, the highlight of unprecedented and unforgettable campaigns for both schools.

“I just want to congratulate all the other teams and runners that made it down here from our league and district,” Huegel said. “It’s always cool to see everybody that you see week-in and week-out be able to run in a big meet like this, and be able to see them compete and see them do some of their best races this year is just awesome to see.”

The Tamaqua girls prepare for the start of their Class 2A race at the PIAA Cross Country Championships Saturday in Hershey. Members of the team are, from left, Samantha Plasha, Madelyn Schaefer, Mollie Walker, Lila Stegemerten, Cali Frantz, Isabella Jones and Bailey Pliska. PATRICK MATSINKO/TIMES NEWS
Marian's Alex Porambo, left, and Wade Eroh get ready for the start of their Class 1A race at the PIAA Cross Country Championships. PATRICK MATSINKO/TIMES NEWS