Fitzgerald ready to challenge Bair in cross country finals
North Hills junior Ian Fitzgerald admits that he has no chance of beating Sam Bair if the Shaler star performs his best.
That should add some drama to the WPIAL cross country finals.
With Bair admittedly struggling with allergies and asthma, the two runners will resume their friendly rivalry at the WPIAL Cross Country Championships today at Slippery Rock University.
Counting invitationals, championship meets and dual meets, Fitzgerald and Bair have crossed paths nine times in the past two seasons. Bair holds a 6-3 edge.
Fitzgerald, looking to become the first North Hills boy to win a WPIAL cross country title since Steve Brown in 1984, will have to go past Bair, an elite high school track runner and a top-three WPIAL cross country finisher each of the past two years.
"If Sam runs his best and I run my best, he wins," Fitzgerald said. "I'm just going to go out and try to do my best. I feel pretty good, and I've been waiting for this day for a while."
Bair is anything but his best as he seeks the elusive WPIAL title. The Shaler senior had trouble breathing at the Tri-State meet last Thursday at Slippery Rock. He placed 48th, which was fourth on his own team and the worst finish in his prep cross country career.
He said that his condition hasn't improved in the past week.
"I'm not feeling all that good," Bair said Monday night. "I haven't been breathing well. I probably won't go out on the lead (at the WPIALs). I'll see how I feel the first couple of miles."
Bair, who has battled asthma and allergies his entire life, said the late autumn is the worst time of the year because of increased mold spores in the air.
He said he is allergic to mold spores, and the falling leaves aggravate the condition. Bair struggled at the PIAA finals last year, placing 39th.
"The last couple of years, I could never catch on to what was wrong with me," Bair said. "I thought maybe I wasn't a cross country guy. I thought I was more of a track guy. Now, we've figured out what's been bothering me. There's not much I can do about it. It's something I was born with."
Bair, who finished third as a sophomore and second as a junior at the WPIALs, beat Fitzgerald by four seconds in their regular-season dual meet and by two seconds at the Central Catholic Invitational.
"Sam Bair is still the favorite," North Hills coach John Wilkie said. "But Fitz is going to take a shot at him. Ian runs very well on that course and I think Sam is going to have to be at his very best to beat him."
North Hills will need a similar effort to upset Mt. Lebanon for the team title. More likely, North Hills, led by Fitzgerald, sophomore Josh Eddy and junior Ian Shreckengast, will challenge Hampton and North Allegheny for second place.
"Mt. Lebanon would have to be the overwhelming favorite," Wilkie said. "They would have to have a very bad day and we'd have to have a great day. They are that much better. Realistically, our goal is to finish second this year and, hopefully, win it next year when we return six of our top seven runners."
While the North Allegheny girls are a longshot to defend their WPIAL Class AAA title, Quaker Valley is heavily favored to repeat as the WPIAL Class AA girls champion.
"We are pretty sure we're going to win," Quaker Valley's Maxine Markfield said. "We're trying to get ready to go to states."
Markfield, who is undefeated against WPIAL Class AA runners this year, is seeking her third consecutive title. She also is shooting for the school-record time at Slippery Rock of 19 minutes, 38 seconds, set by former WPIAL champion Ellen Cogswell.
"I really want to beat that time," Markfield said. "That's my goal on Thursday."
The top four teams — plus the top 20 finishers on non-qualifying teams — advance to the PIAA cross country championships Nov. 2 at Hershey.
Fitzgerald, who placed ninth last year, isn't worried about making states. He wants the WPIAL title and will likely make his move on the long uphill climb that leads to the final straightaway on the 3.1-mile course. Fitzgerald, a strong climber, used the final hill to put away Bethel Park's Teddy Meyers in the Tri-State.
"Obviously, if Ian and Sam are together with 200 meters to go, Sam is going to win," Wilkie said. "At some point in the race, Ian's got to attack and put some distance on Sam. But Sam is a strong runner, and he's very tough to break."