by Tom Utescher

HURTS SO GOOD. Exhausted and victorious after winning the Catholic Academies championship race, Mount St. Joe senior Meredith Reiche (left) slumps into the arms of fellow senior Brittany Robbins, who led the Magic to victory in the JV contest. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

In 2010 and 2011, Mount St. Joseph Academy finished third at the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies cross country championships, and last fall, in particular, the Magic thought they could’ve done better. In a breakout performance last Monday in the 2012 meet at Tyler State Park, the Mounties not only won the AACA title – they dominated.

Senior Meredith Reiche became the individual champion with a time of 18 minutes, 25.7 seconds and sophomore Haasiyna Taylor was runner-up in 18:34.1. The other three Mount St. Joe scorers were all among the top 11 finishers, and even the Magic’s sixth and seventh runners were in the top 20. With an impressive team total of 30 points, Mount St. Joe outdistanced runner-up Gwynedd Mercy Academy, with 76 points, 2011 runner-up Villa Joseph Marie (90), and defending champion St. Basil Academy (92). After that came Villa Maria (136), Nazareth (142), Merion Mercy (145), and Sacred Heart (260).

Mount St. Joe had won team championships back in 1999 and 2000, but that was when the AACA joined in with the old Bicentennial league in the sport of cross country. Since the league began running its own meets in 2006, St. Basil has won every year, until now.

In 2011, the Magic came close to St. Basil in a 28-31 dual meet loss, and this year the Mount finally overcame the Panthers head-to-head, 26-30, en route to an undefeated regular season in the AACA.

“As the year went on,” said second-year head coach Kitty McClernand, “I told them all we need to do is keep running our race, and I think we stepped up and ran even better today. In a big championship race like this you never know what can happen, but matching up with the other teams runner-for-runner, we felt we could do it.”

Reiche, who was fifth in 19:28 at last year’s championships, completed the course more than a minute faster this time around.

“We knew this was our year to do it, because the majority of the girls have been on varsity since their freshman year. We tried to focus and work hard every day, and everybody did their part.”

Another senior, Adrienne Cellucci, injured a hamstring during the Magic’s final regular-season meet and could not race last Tuesday. Junior Annie McCabe, the league’s junior varsity champion a year ago, filled in admirably, finishing in 10th overall in 19:56.6, just a stride or so ahead of senior Patricia Hoffman (11th; 19:57.2).

Smack in the middle of the five Mount scorers, in sixth place overall, was Julianna Kardish, capping an outstanding freshman season with a time of 19:05.40 at Tyler.

In between her and the two MSJ frontrunners came the heavy hitters from three other schools. Gwynedd’s Emma Keenan landed third in 18:51.6, 2011 runner-up Veronica Wheeler of Nazareth was fourth in 18:54.8, and the individual defending champ from St. Basil, senior Megan McGarrity, was fifth in 19:01.2. Following MSJ’s Kardish into the finishing chute were SBA senior Valerie Santangelo (7th; 19:10.5) and Villa Joseph Marie’s Twomey sisters, freshman Meredith (8th; 19:11.8) and junior Brenna (9th; 19:51.2).

Mount St. Joe’s sixth runner, junior Alyssa Kist, claimed 16th place in 20:20.7, and the Magic’s number seven, freshman Jane Prior, was 20th with a time of 20:33.6.

The team had come up to Tyler twice during the previous two weeks. Back at the Mount, the day before the championship race was a school holiday, and Reiche reported, “We actually had a dance party all day long, so the team hung out together during that. We did a lot of team bonding this year.”

If one regarded the results of Tuesday’s junior varsity race as an omen, good things were in store for the varsity. Mount St. Joe won the JV event by 30 points over number two Gwynedd, with seniors Brittany Robbins and Rachel Heller delivering a one-two finish for the Magic.

It was impossible to make any kind of prediction after the first short loop of the varsity contest, which brought the runners back around near the start/finish line after half-a-mile or so. Nazareth’s Wheeler and St. Basil’s McGarrity paced a lead group of 10 runners, with Gwynedd’s Keenan two steps behind. The Mount’s Reiche and Taylor were back near the rear of this pack.

Traversing the same stretch of the course heading in the opposite direction with just over half-a-mile remaining, the runners had separated to a large extent. Reiche was running alone, well out in front.

“My plan was to hang with the leaders for the majority of the race, and then if I felt good I would make a move,” she explained. “It was my last league race and when I knew I only had a little over half-a-mile left I really wanted to kick it in. I wasn’t going to leave anything out there.”

The next harrier to appear was McGarrity. She was about 10 meters in front of Wheeler, Taylor, and Keenan, who were running almost side-by- side. Now, Taylor pulled away from the others.

“Around the last 800 meters I picked it up going up the hill,” she recalled. “I saw they weren’t keeping up, so I just gave it my all.”

Last year as a freshman, Taylor had won all of the Mount’s AACA dual meets, but at the championships she had some breathing difficulties due to asthma, and finished eighth.

Over the past 12 months, the sophomore said, “I think my confidence improved, and also my technique. I’m breathing a little better and my asthma is more under control.”

She summed up, “Everyone on the team has been working really hard, and we worked even harder this past week, so I think we earned the place that we got.”