by Tom Utescher
On the 3.1 mile cross country course at Westtown School last Tuesday, one streak was extended and another was ended for Germantown Friends, whose boys and girls teams had each won the Friends Schools League championship for 13 years in a row.
The GFS boys team made it 14 straight titles by simply overwhelming the rest of the field. The Tigers took the top five places to post a perfect score of 15 points, becoming specks in the distance for runner-up Friends Central, with 76 points, and third-place George School, with 80.
Junior Nick Dahl pulled the first five across by tying the Westtown course record with a time of 15 minutes, 48.10 seconds, and even after the scorers had completed their task, GFS inserted its other two varsity runners into the top 10.
The GFS girls did not fare as well, finishing a strong second but giving up the FSL crown to the Friends Central Phoenix, who dethroned the Tigers, 34-39. Neither team produced the individual winner, as George School senior Jerrica Bauer finished first by more than a minute in 18:21.10. Germantown senior Sarah Walker, better known as the holder of the fastest 800-meter time in the country this year, placed second in 19:31.20.
“The boys ran dynamite,” exclaimed Rob Hewitt, head coach for both the male and female Tigers. “We had thought that we might even get the top six [places], and that almost happened. Westtown and George School and Friends Central each have a kid who is pretty solid, and we knew about them.”
Hewitt said that what he considered a sub-par performance at the Manhattan Invitational on October 10 served as motivation both for himself and his charges. Even though GFS was racing against the elite teams from the Northeast region and beyond, the Tigers weren’t happy with their 22nd-place showing.
Hewitt explained, “That course [in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park) narrows down and filters runners very soon after the start, so if you don’t get out quickly you get trapped in the back. Our guys were saying they just got stuck and couldn’t go anywhere. We emphasized that in a race like that it’s important to first get out there and get positioned, and then you can think about how the pace of the race is settling in. The boys really absorbed that and we did a much better job at the league championships.”
Following Dahl’s lead and securing second and third place were seniors Grayson Hepp (16:42.80) and Gordy Goldstein (17:11.80). Close behind Goldberg and rounding out the team score were sophomore Zach Goldberg in fourth place (17:13.50) and junior Daniel Stassen in fifth (17:16.60).
The Germantown Friends parade was interrupted by Westtown sophomore Ryan O’Donnell (sixth; 17:17.80), then Tigers sophomore Colin Riley nabbed seventh place in 17:22.80. Like his five teammates ahead of him, Riley ran a new personal course record out at Westtown, where GFS had raced in the 2014 league championships and in a dual meet earlier this season.
Crossing the line after Riley were freshman Jeffrey Love of George School (eighth; 17:36.80) and Zachary Zwick of Friends Central (ninth; 18:00.70), and completing the top 10 was Tigers senior Zach Schwartz, who finished in 18:13.60.
Because GFS offers four fall varsity sports for girls and only two for boys, there is a larger pool of athletes for the boys’ cross country squad. They’ve put the additional personnel to good use in developing impressive depth in the program. In the boys’ JV championship race last week, the Tigers not only turned in a perfect score, but grabbed all of the first 12 places. Junior Jonnie Plass won in 18:13.50, and Hewitt noted that the times of the top five junior varsity boys would’ve made them the second-place team in the varsity race.
Overall, he said, “We had 24 of 26 boys run a course PR out at Westtown.”
Going into the season, the Germantown Friends girls knew they were going to face a serious threat from up-and-coming Friends Central. The Phoenix are led by sophomore Gabi Wilkinson, whose older sister, Elise, was a strong half-miler for Penn Charter.
The Tigers felt a little more secure after they logged a 26-31 dual meet victory over FC at the end of the regular season.
For that reason, Hewitt opined, “We might have gone into champs a little bit passive from both the coaches’ and the athletes’ standpoint. I think we probably woke up Friends Central at the dual meet, and they came out for the championships with a different level of preparation.”
After George School’s Bauer finished all alone in first, GFS got second from Walker, who struggled a bit in the middle of the race, according to Hewitt, but regrouped later on.
Hewitt had been hoping he could slip somebody other than Walker in between FC’s top two finishers, but that didn’t happen. Wilkinson was shadowed by junior teammate Emily Burd, and they took third and fourth with respective times of 19:40.80 and 19:41.40. After that, GFS sandwiched junior Griffins Kaulbach (fifth; 20:11.10) and senior Alice Wistar (seventh; 21:08.60) around sixth-place Sydney Chamley-Overton of the Phoenix, whose time was 20:52.60.
After Westtown’s lead runner captured eighth place, the Tigers had their number four runner, sophomore Elise Hocking, come in ninth in 21:18.50. Friends Central then had its number four and five nail down 10th and 11th place overall, locking in their team score of 34 points.
Germantown’s regular number five, junior Sophie Smith, was coughing, congested, and hadn’t trained normally for a week. She ran at the FSL’s, but came in 23rd in 24:20.20, two places behind GFS number six Ella Komita Moussa (23:55.10), a senior.
Just for the occasion, Hewitt had drafted the school’s talented senior 400-meter runner, Eliza Macneal, hoping she might get into the top 18.
She performed well and finished 16th in 22:49.90, but Hewitt felt that ultimately that’s not where the race was decided.
“I think we lost a little of our positive mindset at two, three, and four,” he said. “Give credit to Friends Central for running significantly better than they did in our dual meet.”
In summation, Hewitt remarked, “Sometimes these streaks become more of a burden than a help because you don’t feel that sense of challenge. It’s a different thing to go out trying not to break a streak than it is to go out really hungry for the win.”
With the Pa. Independent Schools championships coming up this Saturday, Hewitt hopes that Germantown Friends’ results at the FSL meet will motivate both his boys and girls, although in slightly different ways. His thinking is the setback at the league meet should have the girls particularly fired up as they go after their fifth straight PAIS title, while the boys are on a roll that should make them fully confident that they can unseat two-time defending champ Malvern Prep.