By Brian Holtzapple
For The Daily Item
For the first time in 39 years, Shikellamy veteran boys and girls cross country coach Jim Bell and his Braves won’t be competing for a District 4 Class AAA championship today, a title Bell and his boys team have claimed a total of 17 times.
Neither will the likes of Selinsgrove, Shamokin, Jersey Shore or Athens. Of those teams, the Seals and Bulldogs have been recent title winners on the boys side along with the Braves, who won No. 17 last year.
That’s because, due to the PIAA’s recent realignment of classifications, all of the aforementioned teams will be running in a crowded Class AA competition at the District 4 Championship meet this morning on Bloomsburg University’s upper campus, beginning with the Class A boys race at 9:30 a.m.
Oh, yeah. In addition to District 4’s dismantling of Class AAA, a new classification has been added to the championship meet: Class A. More on that later.
Coach Bell is a little wary as his boys team prepares to run its first Class AA race.
He knows his runners have their work cut out for them if they want to beat the top contending squads from Lewisburg, Danville and Mount Carmel for one of two qualifying berths to the PIAA championships next week.
The top 10 runners not on the first- or second-place teams also qualify for states in both boys and girls races.
“It’s going to be very different (running in AA), and the boys have a tough haul ahead,” said Bell.
“Towanda ran really fast times in the Northern Tier League meet. Lewisburg will be up there, as will Sayre and Danville. I see those teams challenging the most for the title,” added Bell.
Led by senior Sean Walker, an individual title contender, Lewisburg coach Mark Sundberg says its time for his boys to peak, and that grabbing one of the two PIAA berths won’t be easy.
“Our boys have had a very good (19-0) season, but we still haven’t put out a meet where we’ve had a top performance from all seven varsity runners at the same time,” he said. “Danville will come ready to run. Mount Carmel is running strong, and Towanda has a very strong team coming down.”
On the girls side, Danville has claimed the past two Class AAA titles in the two years the Ironmen ran with the big schools following years of competing in Class AA.
Buoyed by the emergence of freshmen Mackenzie Jones and Katelyn Maffei, plus the experience of juniors Sara Turner and Emily Haney, the Ironmen are favored to grab one of the two team state berths.
Shikellamy freshman Treicy Cedeno, who handily beat Jones in the HAC meet, is considered a strong favorite for the individual title.
Challenging Danville in the team race will be Class AA newcomer Selinsgrove, which finished behind the Ironmen in the Class AAA race a year ago, as well as old hat Lewisburg, the defending Class AA champion.
The Seals are ready for the challenge ahead of them according to their coach, Ryan McGuire. Selinsgrove will be led by, among others, senior Kelsey Ulrich and junior Brianna Carnathan.
“The girls have been pumped up and running well all year. We are confident of being one of the two teams and we’re excited for the opportunity,” said McGuire. “Class AA at our district level is more difficult and challenging, and they know that.”
“It has always been a dogfight to achieve one of those two spots,” he said. “And while the change has dropped some of the traditional Northern Tier powerhouses to Class A, we now have to compete against larger schools like Selinsgrove, whose program is experiencing a growth spurt and increasing success.”
Speaking of the Class A races, the top three teams from last year’s boys AA meet (Wellsboro, Canton and Northeast Bradford) have all dropped, as has Southern Columbia, to make that small school field very competitive.
For the Class A girls, which adds Mount Carmel, Towanda and Troy to its ranks, Wellsboro and NE Bradford should be considered the favorites. The Hornets and Panthers finished close behind Lewisburg in the Class AA race a year ago.
Only the first-place team and top five runners not from that team will advance to the state meet in Hershey on Nov. 3.