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State finals are ultimate proving ground for local runners

| Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013, 10:42 p.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Kiski Area's Patrick Miller (right) and Eric Kennedy climb a hill during the Westmoreland County Coaches' Association cross country meet at St. Vincent College on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, near Latrobe. Miller won the boys event in a time of 16:52.4, and Kennedy came in second, with a time of 16:59.4.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Knoch High School sophomore Mandi Moxie (left), running with teammate Lauren Karenbauer at the Seneca Valley tri-meet. earlier this season, qualified for the PIAA championships

When the time came for Kiski Area senior Brent Kennedy to educate his younger brother, Eric, a freshman, about the PIAA cross country championship meet this season, the 2012 Class AAA state runner-up provided a synopsis that might have scared a lesser runner.

“He told me the first mile is the fastest mile I'll ever have been in,” Eric Kennedy said. “And I have to stay in it. Otherwise, I'll get caught up in the pack.”

Leave it to the little brother of two Kiski Area distance standouts to take that input and run with it.

“It's not that intimidating,” said Eric Kennedy, who bested all Class AAA freshman boys and qualified for the state meet with a 28th-place finish in the WPIAL championships last week. “It's just a different perspective.”

Steadily growing into a runner as gifted as Brent and former track star Ryan Kennedy, Eric Kennedy awaits the opportunity to see just how fast the best in the state move on the Parkview cross country course in Hershey, and to find out whether he can keep up.

He is one of several Alle-Kiski Valley underclassmen who will compete Saturday in the PIAA championships, which begin with the Class A girls at 9:30 a.m. and end with the Class AAA boys around 2 p.m.

Fox Chapel senior twins Colin and Ethan Martin, Michigan recruits who finished 1-2 in WPIAL Class AAA, are contenders for the state title. But many of the Alle-Kiski runners are hoping simply to medal, as three of the eight local boys qualifiers and five of the nine local girls qualifiers are either sophomores or freshmen — each of the sophomores is a returning qualifier.

“Making it (to Hershey) was my main goal from the beginning of the season,” Eric Kennedy said. “I need a good experience, so when I go back next year, I can look to place.”

Eric Kennedy will have Brent with him in Hershey, but they'll part ways come race time. Brent Kennedy, who committed to Notre Dame earlier this week, has sat out this postseason with a suspected stress fracture in his lower right leg.

While he has tried to get Eric ready for the PIAA event, Brent Kennedy admitted his advice cannot replace actual experience.

“You kind of just have to learn for yourself what it's like to go out at a 5-minute mile pace instead of a 5:30 mile,” Brent said. “Just getting the first one out of the way is big.”

Cavaliers teammate Megan Aller agrees.

Aller, a sophomore, placed 15th in the WPIAL and 54th in the PIAA a year ago. She received advice from Brent Kennedy and others, and she ran the Hershey course the day before the meet. But when the time came to compete for the Class AAA championship, her brain had other plans.

“I took it too hard up the first hill, and I made a big mistake,” Aller said. “I pretty much died after that. … I don't know what I was thinking.”

Now a year wiser, Aller, who took seventh last week in the WPIAL, has a strategy, and she intends to stick to it with the hopes of placing in the top 25 statewide. As Brent Kennedy suggested, a fast start is a must — the trail bottlenecks early, so passing becomes difficult, Aller said. But, as with any other race, energy management is vital.

Due in large part to her freshman year experience, Knoch sophomore Mandi Moxie enters the Class AA with her confidence at an apex. She improved from 16th last year to ninth in the WPIAL. Her next goal is to go from 92nd in the PIAA to somewhere in the top 50.

“I think I'm exactly where I need to be right now,” said Moxie, one of Knoch's four PIAA qualifiers (two boys, two girls). “I think I'm a lot stronger than I was last year, just mentally, too.

“Last year, I feel like I kind of gave up. It was just really difficult for me. This year, I'm prepared, and I'm going to give it everything I have.”

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