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Mueller, Graber move on to States
By: BRUCE MORGAN Record Express Sports Editor, Staff Writer
On the eve of her first-ever trip to the PIAA District Three Triple-A Cross Country Championships last week, Warwick sophomore Amanda Graber had a long phone conversation with her older sister, Emily.
Emily, a 2011 Warwick grad, was certainly a good source of information, considering she had navigated Hershey’s challenging Parkview course while qualifying for States three years in a row during her high school career.
"She was saying, ‘Just keep passing people on the hills,’" Amanda said. "We like to go run hills together, so we know hills better than other girls and she said to sprint the end because that would pick up my place."
It turned out to be good advice.
The younger Graber ended up passing two competitors down the stretch last Wednesday, Oct. 24 and placed 31st overall out of 234 finishers in 21:03 to punch her ticket to the PIAA Championships, which are slated for this Saturday, Nov. 3 back on Hershey’s Parkview course. Overall, the top 33 finishers, including 13 girls who qualified with their team, qualified for States.
Although Graber is Warwick’s only girls runner advancing to States, the Warriors will also be represented in Chocolatetown by senior Ben Mueller, who took 20th place overall out of 248 finishers in 17:06 in the District Three Triple-A boys race to earn a medal and move on to States for the second year in a row.
The State Triple-A girls will race at 11 a.m. this Saturday, with the Triple-A boys set for 1:15 p.m.
"I left it all out there. My goal (was) top 20, get a medal and move on," Mueller said. "I barely did it. I got 20th, so I’m happy."
Warrior junior Michael Urban missed the top-25 cutoff for States by just a whisker, finishing 27th in 17:25. Painfully, he missed States by just two places as a sophomore as well, when he finished 39th in 17:22.
"I’m disappointed for (Michael)," Warwick coach Jenny Sassaman said. "A lot of times in the past, you could go out 40 places (to qualify for States). So I assumed — and I never assumed to say yes, I’m a hundred percent sure — but I was very certain that he would be going to States. And then to see him in 27th place, and 25 was the (cutoff) to make it, it really hurt."
Graber didn’t want to assume anything either when she reached the finish line.
"I was pretty confident," she said, "but I wanted to tell myself, ‘Just wait, don’t get too excited.’"
Wisely, waiting was one thing that she did not do at the start of the race, as Graber got out with the leaders in a first-mile time of 5:58. Sassaman said she found the right balance between breaking away with the top group and running conservatively at the start.
"There’s a white part of the candy corn … you’ve got to be in that part when it comes out from the start, at the top of that triangle," Sassaman remarked. "I said, ‘If you’re in orange, or if you have to head to a mile in a 6:20 pace, forget it.’ But she had to run her race at the same time. If anything you want to play your first mile a little bit conservatively running the first part of the course, and she still hit a fast mile time, but she was able to sustain around the hills."
It wasn’t easy on those hills, however. In fact, Graber acknowledged that as much as she enjoys running hills, she still wasn’t ready for what greeted her roughly one mile and a half into the race.
"That’s the start of the torture to come," Graber smiled. "I thought I was ready for them, but then when I was running, the hill showed up in front of me and I wasn’t ready like I thought I was."
Still, Graber pressed on and clocked in with a second-mile split of 13:01, putting her in a 29th-place tie with Cumberland Valley sophomore Megan Howe at that point.
As she got closer to the finish line, Graber heard her coaches telling her that she was 33rd and that she needed to make a final push.
"It was really tough … I didn’t want to move forward, but I knew if I wanted to make it to States, I had to move forward," Graber said.
Ultimately, her hard work paid off, finishing just four seconds ahead of Daniel Boone junior Alex Hamil, who got the 33rd and final State berth in 21:07.
Graber took over Warwick’s top position on the team toward the end of the season and hasn’t looked back.
"Awesome, awesome," Sassaman said of Graber’s effort. "She’s run two really solid races two weeks in a row. I’m very pleased with her progress … The last two (regular season) meets weren’t a huge challenge for us, but really the post-season is where she has really shined."
The Warwick sophomore admitted that she wasn’t necessarily expecting to go to States, but she wanted to give it her best and let the chips fall where they might.
"Qualifying for States was kind of a surprise, a nice surprise," she said. "I didn’t care about the time that much because I knew it was a much hillier course than usual."
Graber’s finish also led a solid fourth-place finish for Warwick as a team (289 points), with only Garden Spot (6th, 233 points) placing ahead of them among L-L squads.
Warwick senior Emily Cameron (43rd, 21:17) missed a State berth by only 10 spots, and she was followed by junior Rachel Mueller (58th, 21:46), sophomore Maddie Class (83rd, 22:17), junior Amy Wood (103rd, 22:38), sophomore Samantha Shields (112th, 22:45) and junior Monica Roshcel (155th, 23:25).
"I’m thrilled," Sassaman said. "After a fifth place finish at Leagues, eighth is fantastic. Our team is very young — we have one senior, two juniors, and the rest are sophomores and a freshman and I’m just thrilled. It bodes well for the future."
Sassaman is also thrilled for Ben Mueller to end his high school cross country career with a second trip to the State Championships. Last year, he placed 24th at Districts in 17:08.
"I’m very happy," Sassaman said. "I was talking to him before the race, and with Ben, your words must be quality and brief. He’s very intelligent and he does not like going on and on and gushing at the mouth. I respect that and I said, ‘Today is the day you need to redeem yourself,’ and he did."
Mueller acknowledged that he’s had an up and down season, mainly due to a iron deficiency health issue which he was battling during the course of the fall.
But he’s been getting better and better, and last Wednesday he carried that into the District Championships. At the one-mile point, Mueller had a time of 5:07, just four seconds behind teammate Urban, whose 5:03 had him a four-way tie for 20th place.
"You kind of expect going out fast and you have to go out fast or else you’re going to be way back. You’re going to get caught," Mueller said. "But it’s way faster than our race pace, so you pay for it at the end. But everyone else pays for it too, so it’s kinda like, you’ve just got to gut it out."
"When it’s like this, it’s kinda what you’ve got to do," Urban said.
Unfortunately, however, the hills were still waiting for the runners. Although Urban’s and Mueller’s paces slowed somewhat over the second mile, they were still in solid shape, with the former in a three-way tie for 18th place in 10:40 and the latter in a four-way tie for 28th in 10:48.
Then from there, Mueller felt like he found a good groove over the final mile and finished with what he considered a good pace.
"I think you get used to (the hills)," Mueller said. "When you first come here, it’s really mental, like you see it and (think), ‘Oh my God, I can’t do that’ … (But) I took it in well and I kinda built it all way up to the finish and picked off a lot of people on the way in. It wasn’t my fastest mile, but as far as moving up in the field, it was probably my best mile."
Knowing that this was his final opportunity to return to States was also in the back of Mueller’s mind.
"It’s kinda like your last chance to see what you can do against all these guys, to see where you rank up and everything," Mueller said. "Other years, you go in (thinking), ‘Well, I’ll go for this, but if I don’t get it, there’s always next year.’ But this year, it’s your last shot."
"Mentally, he knew he had it in him, his body was finally recovered and he went out and did it," Sassaman said.
The Warriors also felt like they had a shot to qualify for States as a team after going 20-1 in the regular season. Unfortunately, however, they ended up ninth with 309 points. Cumberland Valley won the title with 166 points, led by overall winner Alec Kunzweiler (16:35), and L-L rival Hempfield (222 points) earned the fourth and final spot at States.
"It was definitely a goal of the guys to go to States as a team," Sassaman said. "But this is yet another case in point that we race too hard during the season."
Other finishers for the Warriors were senior Matt Lefever (72nd, 18:04), senior Daniel O’Conor (87th, 18:15), senior Austin Minnich (106th, 18:27), sophomore Will Howland (107th, 18:28) and senior Conor Smith (144th, 18:45). More WHS RUNNERS, page B-12