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Mars boys, girls cross country teams have sights set high this year

- Leading the way for the Mars boys cross country team are (from left) Frankie Petrini, Gage Zimmerman, Nathan Mrdjenovich and Brendan Knox.
Leading the way for the Mars boys cross country team are (from left) Frankie Petrini, Gage Zimmerman, Nathan Mrdjenovich and Brendan Knox.
- Kristina LaRocca sets the pace for the Mars girls team.
Kristina LaRocca sets the pace for the Mars girls team.

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By Joe Sager
Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

The Mars boys and girls cross country teams are young, but ready to make some noise in the WPIAL Class AA ranks.

The Planets' boys team hopes to build on its WPIAL runner-up finish from a year ago, and the girls look to move up from seventh.

For the boys, the route to a district championship may be the toughest. The team graduated its top runner, Scott Slaney. In addition, Chris Georgiadis, another of the team's top runners a year ago, elected not to run cross country this fall.

“He's an outstanding swimmer and he wanted to focus that,” Mars coach Dale Boring said. “We're down two very good kids, but the kids have worked hard and we're trying to fill in the gaps.”

A year ago, Mars finished second at the WPIAL championship meet with 132 points — 66 behind Quaker Valley. At the PIAA championship meet, the Planets placed 15th with 337 points.

Even though Mars did not claim a gold medal, the experience paid dividends. Seniors Frankie Petrini and Gage Zimmerman, as well as juniors Brendan Knox and Zack Hunkele and sophomore Nathan Mrdjenovich, competed in both championship meets last year and gained confidence.

“They feel they should be contenders every year now. I think last year gave them a lot of experience and confidence,” Boring said. “Even without Scott and Chris, their goal is still be No. 1 in the WPIAL. I think that's what last year did for us. We'll keep riding that wave and see how far it can take us.”

John Caraway and sophomores Evan Monteleone and Jacob Porter are competing as well.

“They are trying to crack into the top seven, which will push the kids,” Boring said.

Boring has noticed improvement right away from the team.

“We had a meet against North Hills and most of our kids, when compared to last year, were about 40 seconds faster,” he said. “They are a year more experienced, from a tactical standpoint. Their bodies are more mature and they have a lot of miles under their belt. They are very dedicated to the sport. They've bought in. They love to run.”

The girls placed seventh at the WPIAL championship meet last fall with 179 points. Maggie McChesney, Shannon McChesney and Jessica Monberg qualified for the PIAA meet in Hershey. Shannon McChesney (20:50) was 68th, Maggie McChesney (21:05) was 93rd and Monberg (21:51) was 161st.

Maggie McChesney graduated, but senior Amanda Alikhani and juniors Sydney Cole, Kristina Larocca, Reilly Butler and Shannon McChesney, plus sophomore Monberg and freshmen Natalie Petrini, Taylor Hockenberry, Emma Gentile and Lindsey Brand have been impressive.

“From top to bottom, we have a lot of talent. It was a talented team last year, but it didn't come together like we thought it should,” Boring said. “Based on the North Hills race we saw them run, we are extremely pleased with where they are right now. I think we're going to surprise some people in the WPIAL.”

Natalie Petrini, Frankie's sister, has emerged as the team's top runner.

“She was a heck of a runner in our junior high program, and we were looking forward to having her at the varsity level,” Boring said. “She ran a little bit last winter with our varsity, so it was not much of an adjustment for her.”

With only one senior among the top group, the Planets are poised for a strong run in the next couple of seasons.

“We're going to be decent for a while, but it's time right now,” Boring said. “I think everyone knows that. ... We can't look to next year. We have to seize the moment and that's it. We had talent last year. I got a sense the kids thought it was just going to come together because the previous year we brought it together at the WPIAL meet. This year, there's a different attitude. They are working hard and learned from last year. They know it's not just going to come together on one day. We have to work to make it happen. There's a different mentality now.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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