South Fayette cross country ready to become elite
Before the members of the South Fayette cross country team finish the school year and head out on summer vacation, head coach Joe Winans brings them in for a group meeting.
Winans has each athlete write what they hope to accomplish in the upcoming fall on a piece of paper.
At the meeting this past school year, the Lions set their sights high for the 2012 season.
“It is interesting what they come up with,” Winans said. “They are usually on point. They want to win the section, win the WPIAL and to not only make states, but to win it.”
Those are big goals for a program still in its infancy. The South Fayette cross country program began in 2007. Winans has guided the Lions to great success in only a short period of time.
The boys squad is on its way for another strong campaign. The Lions have been one of the top teams in Class AA the past four years, finishing seventh or better at the WPIAL Class AA championships, including a second-place finish in 2010.
The 2012 squad finished in 18th at the Red, White & Blue Classic – an event that features 60 teams from both WPIAL Class AAA and AA as well as teams from the PIAA and West Virginia – and took home first place in the Slippery Rock Invitational's Class AA race – held at the same location as the WPIAL championships. The team is also 4-0 in Section 5-AA competition.
But what may be most impressive about the early start is that the Lions graduated five seniors from last season's squad.
“I felt confident with the group of boys runners we had,” Winans said. “I knew the work ethic they had, the natural talent they had and how many miles they put in preparing for the season. We lost some talented seniors but I borrowed a saying I saw on a North Allegheny shirt once – we don't rebuild, we reload – and passed it on to this team.”
The top returning runner for South Fayette is Ryan Lerda. The junior reached the PIAA Class AA championships last season after finishing in 28th at the WPIAL championships. He led the team at the Slippery Rock Invitational win with a seventh-place finish.
Close behind are junior twin brothers Evan and Stephen Zombek. Juniors Frank Morelli and Johncarlo Patton – who reached the PIAA championships his freshman season – round out the Lions' top five.
The Lions also have junior Patrick Brady and freshman Devan Sandla on the roster.
Despite having a squad full of underclassmen, the Lions are running some of their best times in program history. The squad ran a team average of 17:39 at the Slippery Rock Invitational – a team best – with a spread of only 39 seconds.
“The boys team is looking to win the WPIAL title,” Winans said.
The girls team has been having its own success as well. The girls squad finished 23th at the 47-team Red, White & Blue Classic. The team also took home a seventh-place finish at the Slippery Rock Invitational and have gone 4-0 in Section 5-AA action.
The Lady Lions qualified for the PIAA Class AA championships last season after finishing fourth as a team at the WPIAL meet. Four of the seven athletes who were on that squad return this season.
Returning sophomore Morgan Gimigliano has been the team's No. 1 runner so far this season and had a 19th-place finish at the Slippery Rock Invitational. Senior Britanny Rees – another member of the group that qualified for states – has been close behind.
The rest of the girls squad includes freshman Sydney Lerda, junior Jordan Maloney – who is in only her second year of running cross country and went to states last season – and returning senior Joelle Darby, who is on the team for her fourth season.
The girls have been running some of the best averages for a girls team at South Fayette. The 2010 squad had some of the best averages for the girls team but this unit has been performing better as a unit, according to Winans,
“Two years ago we had some of our best averages with Nicole Hilton running an 18:45 or 19:00,” Winans said. “We are approaching those times without anyone running a 19:00. It really says something about our depth.”
With both teams running some of the programs best-ever times, Winans said the expectations have been raised for this season's team.
“We had a group of seniors leave last season and I have nothing but respect for how hard they worked and what they achieved,” Winans said. “But we have only began to scratch the surface of what we want to do. I told this group that what we did last year is not good enough anymore. I expect more.
“I commend them for how well they have responded to that and how well they have increased their drive and work ethic.”
The South Fayette cross country teams return to action Saturday when they travel to the Pittsburgh Central Catholic Invitational.
Nathan Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-388-5813.