SOL Boys/Girls Cross Country Notebook (10-26-17)

Cheltenham’s MaryGrace Rittler, North Penn’s Brendan O’Toole & Neshaminy’s Kaylee McCullough are featured in this week’s notebook. (Photos submitted except for slide photos which are provided courtesy of Kathy Leister Photography.)

By DENNY DYROFF

When the Suburban One League Cross Country Championships were contested last Friday at Lehigh University’s South Campus just outside Hellertown, there were six varsity races.

With three conferences, the league sponsored boys’ and girls’ varsity championship races for the American Conference, the Continental Conference and the National Conference.

Six championship races meant that six gold medals were awarded. So, as many as six schools could have returned home from then Lehigh Valley with an individual gold medalist.

As it turned out, only three schools came away with individual champions.

Neshaminy claimed the top spots in the National Conference. As expected, Rusty Kujdych won the boys’ race. Somewhat unexpectedly. Neshaminy’s Kaylee McCullough was the top finisher in the girls’ meet.

In the Continental Conference race, it was no surprise when North Penn’s Ariana Gardizy claimed the gold medal in the girls’ race. On the flip side, it was a bit of a surprise when the Knights’ Brendan O’Toole was the gold medalist in the boys’ meet.

Things went more as expected in the American Conference races.  Cheltenham’s MaryGrace Rittler was the favorite in the girls’ race and she held true to form. The Panthers’ Jason Cornelison was expected to finish in the top three and he came through big time by winning the race.

“The conference meet went well for me – especially considering it’s been a weird season,” said Rittler. “During the race, I took it easy and kept a steady pace.

“I took it out with the pack for the first mile and then picked it up a little. I made a gap, held it and cruised to the end.”

It was the second big-meet gold medal finish in a row for the Panthers’ talented senior. The week before, Rittler crossed first at the Neshaminy Invitational.

“I had been having trouble with my races,” said Rittler. “I started to feel very fatigued – more than typical. So, I’ve been keeping it a little more reserved this season.

“I had a bunch of medical tests done and everything came back as normal. I could be letting it affect me mentally. I had a strong showing at the Briarwood Invitational but the rest of my races were pretty off.

“I feel pretty confident now. Hopefully, I’ll have a strong race at districts (District One Class AAA Championships at Lehigh on October 27) – and hopefully I’ll qualify for states.

“Last year, I finished sixth at districts and qualified for states. But, I didn’t have a super great race at states. I was strong for the first two miles and then sort of fell off. I feel stronger and more confident this year.”

Last year was Rittler’s first cross country season.

“I played field hockey my freshman and sophomore years and really liked it,” said Rittler. “I didn’t run cross country because I was running indoor and outdoor track and was apprehensive about three seasons of running each year.

“I had a really strong outdoor track season my sophomore year and finished second in the 3,200 at districts. I also won a medal in the 4x400 at states.

“After doing so well in outdoor track that year, I felt like running is where I would work best. So, I gave up field hockey and switched to cross country for my fall sport.”

Making the switch was a smart move for Rittler, the team’s captain.

But then, Rittler, whose extracurricular activities at Cheltenham have included National Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society and Student Council, is experienced at making smart moves.

“A couple weeks ago, I committed to Dartmouth University,” said Rittler. “I’m not sure what my major will be – probably neuroscience or biology.

“I visited there two summers ago and fell in love with the environment. When I took my official visit, I really loved the team. The school is a perfect distance from home because I didn’t want to be too far away.”

Rittler still has two key races to deal with before she starts dreaming of New England autumns.

Cheltenham coach Drew Magaha, who was a state medalist in cross country and a gold medalist and state record holder in the 1,600 when he ran for Upper Moreland, continues to be impressed with his senior ace.

“MaryGrace is new to cross country so she’s still figuring things out,” said Magaha. “She is an incredible talent – one of the best runners I’ve ever come across.

“As team captain, she’s one of the driving forces. She leads by example. She’s tough. She’ll run herself into the ground it that’s what it takes. She can push herself past what most runners can do.”

In the Continental Conference boys’ race, O’Toole crossed the finish line if first place with no other runners even close.

The Knights’ senior posted a winning time of 15:54 while Central Bucks West’s Michael Samson was runner-up at 16:15.

“Winning the conference gold medal definitely gives me confidence heading into districts,” said O’Toole. “I’m going to run strong and be mentally prepared at districts.”

North Penn coach Mike Werner said, “Brian’s race went really well. He ran a smart race and kept it under control.

“He’s been getting stronger for the last three years. It’s been a gradual process. He’s learned from every race and steadily improved.”

Like Rittler, O’Toole started his high school sports career with a different fall sport.

“I had been playing football since I was four years old,” said O’Toole. “I played baseball as well.

“My parents got me into track when I was a fifth-grader. At a CYO meet, they offered me an ice cream cone if I ran the mile. How could I refuse?

“Track was always fun. In CYO track, I was able to run any event. Later, I stayed with distance events.

“I was a wide receiver in football. After freshman year, I decided to stop football and focus on running. It was a tough decision because I had played football all my life.

“But, I saw my talent as a runner and realized it was a better way to go than sticking with football. I had a good sophomore season in cross country and just missed making states.

“Last year, I was sixth at the league meet and the number two returner. At districts, I was the last runner to qualify for states. I just barely squeezed in.

“My race at districts wasn’t the race I expected so I was bummed out. I had respiratory problems and was on antibiotics. So, it was nice to see the results and see that I made it to states.”

Werner expects O’Toole to make a return trip to states and build on last year.

“He came into the season really well prepared,” the Knights’ coach said. “It’s a maturation process. It takes a lot to learn how to compete in District One and at states. Hopefully, he can compete for a medal at states.”

Prior to last week’s conference race, O’Toole had flirted with a gold medal all season at invitational meets outside the local area.

He was third at the DeSales Invitational in the Lehigh Valley, second at the White Clay Creek Invitational in Delaware, second at the Salesianum Invitational in Delaware and second at the New Jersey Fall Classic in Monroe, N.J.

“Brendan has an amazing work ethic and he learns from race-to-race,” said Werner. “He’s always had good talent and speed and he’s grown in his ability to compete. His growth has been remarkable.”

O’Toole said, “I’ve been learning how to sit on people. Districts will be fun. I can sit on other people and let them do the work. I’ll just have to see what develops. I imagine there will be a pretty decent pack for the first mile.”

O’Toole, whose other extracurricular activity is membership in FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes), has yet to choose a college.

“I’m weighing options,” said O’Toole. “I’ll probably major in business administration or economics. Right now, Bucknell is my top priority.”

Dealing with college choices is not a consideration for Neshaminy’s conference gold medalist Kaylee McCullough because she is only a sophomore.

“I haven’t started to think about colleges yet,” said McCullough. “But, I think I’d like to major in criminal law. I’d like to be involved in criminal investigations.”

Some of the veteran runners in the National Conference might be thinking about an investigation to determine where this previously unheralded 10th-grader came from.

“Kaylee has been under the radar all year,” said Neshaminy coach Shawn DeLosAngeles. “But, I’ve seen a lot of growth in her.”

McCullough’s attraction to distance running has been around almost half her life.

“I started running in third grade for the CYO team at my school – Assumption B.V.M. in Feasterville,” said McCullough. “I started with sprints but I was really bad so I switched to distance.

“I started distance running in fifth grade. I even ran a 5K somewhere in Philadelphia when I was 11. I’ve loved distance running ever since I began. It seemed like something that would calm me down.

“When I was in seventh grade at Poquessing Middle School, I ran on the track team. My events were the 1600 and the 800. Going into eighth grade, I practiced with the high school girls during the summer. In the summer before ninth grade, I picked up the mileage.

“My freshman cross country was a good season. I really liked running last year. The season was O.K. but I could have done better. I wanted a faster PR (personal record) – and I wanted to qualify for states. I was ninth at the SOLs and 69th at districts.”

DeLosAngeles said, “Back in June, Kaylee set a goal of what she wanted to accomplish as a cross country runner. She gives it her all. As long as she knows the course and is right-minded, she always does well.

“With the summer program, I made it a lot more challenging for her. This year, her mileage was up so this season her stamina was stringer and her endurance was better.”

This summer McCullough ran 7-10 miles a day, six days a week.

“When the season started, I felt like I was going to have a good year,” she said. “My goals are to do better than last year – to get a PR and qualify for states.”

She already logged a PR when she clocked a 19:03 at the Paul Short Invitational at Lehigh. She also produced solid performances at several other prestigious invitational meets, including the PTXC9 at Kutztown and the PIAA Foundation Invitational at Hershey.

“Paul Short was a really good race,” said McCullough. “It didn’t get too hot and I felt really great. My time at that race last year was 20:12 and this year was 19:03. I didn’t expect that big of an improvement,

“Getting a PR there boosted my confidence. I thought maybe I’d finish top five or top three at SOLs. I won all our dual meets in the league but I thought doing that might have been an accident.

“At SOLs, I started strong. I took the lead right at the beginning of the race. My lead kept getting bigger and then I pushed it hard at the end.”

Now, McCullough returns to Lehigh this Friday with a pair of goals.

“I just want to race as hard as possible,” said McCullough. “And, I want to qualify for states.”

DeLosAngeles, “Obviously, Kaylee’s main goal at districts is to make it to states. It’s all new territory for her but she is very composed.”