Junior Kris Lacek (center) and senior Georgia Kelly (right) lead the main pack of Mount St. Joe runners in last week’s league meet against Villa Maria. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Junior Kris Lacek (center) and senior Georgia Kelly (right) lead the main pack of Mount St. Joe runners in last week’s league meet against Villa Maria. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Mount St. Joseph Academy runners finished the month of September with a flawless record in cross country dual meets within the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies. A convincing 21-40 victory over host Villa Maria last Monday gave the Magic a 6-0 record with only a contest against Nazareth Academy remaining on the regular-season schedule.

Seeking a third straight AACA championship this fall, the Mounties won most of their league meets by comfortable margins. They did have a close scrape with 2013 runner-up Gwynedd Mercy, though, getting past the Monarchs by a score of 26-29. Last season, the Magic finished four points ahead of Gwynedd at the league championships.

Last week’s race with Villa Maria was actually hosted by the Hurricanes on the campus of nearby Malvern Prep. This venue features a picturesque ascent and descent of a hillside fringed by woods, but much of the course loops around the Friars’ playing fields and is relatively flat.

Junior Julianna Kardish, who ran first for the Mount and fourth overall at the 2013 AACA meet, has led the MSJ contingent in league dual meets this fall, although in some outside invitationals, the Magic’s best performance was given by freshman Mollie Mullen.

Another talented ninth-grader, Villa’s Kira Buchler, went to the front as last week’s dual meet got underway, but during the second mile the Mount’s Kardish moved ahead and stayed there. In conditions that were not truly hot but very muggy, she won in 20 minutes, 28 seconds, with Buchler second in 20:45 and Mullen third in 20:56.

Senior Maddie Reiche snagged fourth place for the Magic in 20:37, while fifth went to Hurricanes junior Gab Nunag. After that, Mount St. Joe nailed down the team victory as a string of eight purple-clad runners crossed the line in succession.

In sixth place at 21:48, Maddie Taylor was one of four MSJ freshmen to land in the top 12 spots. The team score for the winners was locked in just two seconds later, as junior Jane Prior came across in seventh.

The Mounties just kept on coming. In eighth through 13th place overall were sophomore Kelly Ward (22:13), freshman Jen DeGroat (22:15), senior Tara Gallagher (22:16), junior Abby Aita (22:35), freshman Jade Killion (22:36), and junior Ella Perry (22:55). The third runner to finish for Villa crossed the line next, 14th overall.

Gallagher is a team co-captain for the Mount this year, along with senior classmate Georgia Kelly.

“They’ve been good leaders and they’ve set a nice tone for the team,” said Magic coach Kitty McClernand. “The girls get along very well, and they do a lot of things together outside of school, pasta parties, sleepovers, and that type of thing.”

Most weekends, the MSJ squad has been participating in multi-team invitational meets around the Philadelphia area. There was an “off” week in the middle of September, but McClernand used that opportunity to put the runners through some truly challenging practices.

“They were really tired at the end, but when we came out to race the next week, they said that the extra work had really helped,” she related.

The next weekend, they ran in an invitational held at Tyler State Park near Newtown, which also is the traditional venue for the AACA championship meet. It wasn’t the only trip the Mounties have made up to the Bucks County course, where they will seek their third straight league title on October 14.

“The younger girls got to learn the course, and we did a lot of mile repeats,” McClernand said. “Another thing we’ve been doing is practicing downhills. Everyone trains to run uphill, but a lot of times you tend to coast going down, so if you push a little bit there you can pick up some time.”

Out of the three athletes who placed ahead of Kardish at last year’s AACA Championships, 2013 champion Veronica Wheeler (Nazareth) and third place Taylor McElwee (Merion Mercy) have graduated. Karli Visconto, last year’s runner-up from Nazareth, is back for her senior season, but has only recently returned to action after suffering a stress fracture.

There is also a talented newcomer from Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, and other freshmen such as Villa’s Buchler should be in the mix. Still, team depth will make the Mount tough to dethrone.

“We should be alright if the girls run the way they have been running,” McClernand said, “but you never know on a given day.”