Mount St. Joseph, AACA Cross Country Champions: (from left) Coach Kitty McClernand, Julianna Kardish, Georgia Kelly, Madeline Reiche, Alyssa Kist, Jane Prior, Haasiyna Taylor, Annie McCabe. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Mount St. Joseph, AACA Cross Country Champions: (from left) Coach Kitty McClernand, Julianna Kardish, Georgia Kelly, Madeline Reiche, Alyssa Kist, Jane Prior, Haasiyna Taylor, Annie McCabe. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Back in 2012, it didn’t take long to determine the winner of the Catholic Academies cross country championship meet, as all five scorers for Mount St. Joseph Academy finished among the top 11 overall and gave the Magic a 46-point victory over runner-up Gwynedd Mercy.

Going into this year’s AACA meet last Tuesday, no one expected the outcome to be so clear-cut. The Magic had graduated individual champion Meredith Reiche, and they had lost a dual meet to Gwynedd during the regular season. To complicate matters further, two runners from Nazareth Academy had beaten all comers during the dual meet campaign and were expected to produce a one-two finish for the Pandas at the championships.

After several dozen runners had finished the race at Tyler State Park last week, coaches were crunching numbers furiously, and although the scores were indeed close, Mount St. Joe held onto the league title, fending off the Monarchs of Gwynedd by four points, 52-56. Nazareth was in contention with four scorers in the stable, but their number five finished 31st, and the team landed in third place with 65 points.

Mount sophomore Julianna Kardish, sixth last year as a freshman, was the first MSJ finisher last week and was fourth overall with a time of 19 minutes, 29.86 seconds. Also among the first 10 runners were fellow sophomore Jane Prior, who was eighth in 20:07.84, and senior Alyssa Kist, close behind in ninth place at 20:09.87.

As expected, Nazareth received a one-two finish from senior Veronica Wheeler (fourth in 2012), who won in 18:48.28, and junior Karli Visconto, who was second in 18:48.57. The weather was a little warmer than average for mid-October and the pace was not particularly fast; in 2012 Mount St. Joe’e Reiche won in 18:25.7 (also at Tyler) and current MSJ junior Haasiyna Taylor was the runner-up in 18:34.1.

Referring to this year’s two frontrunners from Nazareth, the Magic’s Kardish said “I was trying to work the second mile and keep them in my sights as long as I could. Near the finish they started to pull away, so I just tried to finish strong and get a good place. The weather was amazing, so I had a lot of fun out there.”

Her senior teammate, Kist, commented, “When you got out of the shade it was a little hot, but it wasn’t too bad. There were a few puddles [left over from the previous week’s rainstorms], but it was easy to avoid them.”

Behind the top two Nazareth runners, Merion Mercy’s Taylor McElwee was third in 19:19.54, and after the Mount’s Kardish crossed the line Gwynedd Mercy got fifth and sixth-place finishes from senior Allie Flint (19:54.84) and freshman Stephanie Szekely (19:55.53). After the next two places went to the Mount, Merion’s Dierdre McCloskey rounded out the top 10 in 20:10.21.

Taylor, the Mount junior, was 13th in 20:20.12, becoming the fourth scorer for the Magic. Occasionally troubled by asthma when running, she was unable to turn in the type of performance that netted her second place last year. Coming in just ahead of her this time were Gwynedd freshman Emily Gregor (11th; 20:14.58) and sophomore Allie Szekely (12th; 20:18.40). The final scorer for the Monarchs was junior Sydney Hirokawa (22nd; 20:53.04).

Completing the Mount’s winning team score was Meredith Reiche’s sophomore sister, Madeline. Placing 18th in 20:48.45, she ran most of the race side-by-side with junior Georgia Kelly, who ended up 19th in 20:49.90.

The seventh runner for the Magic, coming in 21st in 20:52.14, was senior Annie McCabe, who is team co-captain along with Kist.

Kist said “It was a great experience to lead the girls this year, and try to guide and motivate them. On the bus ride over here Annie and I told them, ‘We can make this happen, it’s ours to take.’”

Several Mounties also sought counsel from older siblings who had run for the school. Kardish consulted her sister McKenna, who is now a junior at Harvard.

“I talked to her right before the race,” she related, “and she wished me good luck and told me to just do my best, so it was nice to have her supporting me.”

Reiche received advice from sister Meredith, the 2012 champ who is now at Syracuse University.

“She told me to work hard on the second mile, because it’s flat and it’s easy to lose focus,” the sophomore explained. “She said that’s when you want to stay strong and keep your form.”

Early in the month the Magic had come out to Tyler to practice, and had concentrated mainly on the opening mile, which ends with an uphill section.

Preceding the varsity event last Tuesday, the JV league championship race was also won by Mount St. Joe, with sophomore Abby Aita taking top individual honors with a time of 20:47.

The varsity race was soon underway, and about half-a-mile in, Nazareth’s Wheeler and Visconto were already in command. At this point, just about all of the Mount scorers were running farther back in the pack than the places they would achieve by the end of the race.

Kist related, “It was tough to tell what was going on at the beginning, but once we hit that second mile we kind of had our places, and then we just tried to pick it up and give it our all on the last stretch.”

Given the small gap between the Mount and Gwynedd in the team totals, a good showing by the fifth scorer would be crucial. The Mount’s Reiche and Kelly were running together, as they had in meets throughout the season.

Reiche reported, “I was behind her and then at the second mile I kind of went ahead and pulled her with me, and then on the last mile we worked together.

“I’ve been working on my speed because I haven’t always had the strongest kick,” the 10th-grader continued. “The crowd really helped by letting me know that I had to get [pass] every girl I could – that every one was going to matter. We got the feeling it would be a close race the whole time.”

The top teams all had managers (or the coaches themselves) recording an unofficial order of finish. The Mounties’ math told them that they were going to pull out a narrow victory, and eventually the official results confirmed that.

Kist summed it up, “Everyone really wanted it, and we all worked together very hard to make it happen.”

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