By DENNY DYROFF
Journal Register News Service
For scholastic cross country teams in Pennsylvania, all roads lead to Hershey.
The ultimate destination for the season that starts with training sessions under blazing late summer sun is Hersheypark’s Parkview Cross Country Course on a particular Saturday in early November.
This year, that Saturday is November 3 -- the date of the PIAA Cross Country Championships.
But, the trip to Hershey is only open to a select few -- the runners and the teams who make it through a checkpoint one week earlier. For area teams, that checkpoint is the District 1 Cross Country Championships, which are scheduled for October 26 at Lehigh University’s Goodman Campus.
In Class AAA, the top five teams at the district meet qualify as teams for the state meet. Additionally, the list of state meet qualifiers includes the top 25 individual finishers from schools that didn’t qualify to go to Hershey as a team.
In Class AA and Class A, the top team and the top five individuals receive bids to the state championship meet. The formula is exactly the same for both boys and girls.
There were two prevailing themes at last year’s Class AAA district meet.
One was the dominance shown by teams from the Ches-Mont League. West Chester Henderson’s boys team captured another district title. Great Valley took home the runner-up trophy and West Chester East finished eighth.
In the girls championships, Pennsbury took the title, followed in order by Unionville, West Chester Henderson and Downingtown East. Additionally, Great Valley placed seventh and Avon Grove finished ninth.
The other theme at the 2011 District 1 Class AAA meet was youth. Not only were the races filled with talented runners, they were overflowing with young, talented runners.
In the girls meet, not one team in the top 15 had more than three seniors in its top seven. That’s right, not one team had more seniors than underclassmen in its scoring unit.
Pennsbury, the district champion, had a senior as its first runner and that was it. Unionville, which placed second, had underclassmen in its top six places. Third-place West Chester Henderson had just three seniors and fourth-place Downingtown East just two.
See a pattern starting to emerge?
North Penn (fifth place) had an "old" team with three seniors -- the same number as Central Bucks West (11th) and Haverford (12th). Other squads with only two seniors in their scoring group were Central Bucks East (sixth), Great Valley (seventh), Boyertown (10th), Pennridge (14th) and Strath Haven (15th).
Schools other than Pennsbury and Unionville that had only one senior in their top seven were Council Rock North (eighth), Avon Grove (ninth) and Downingtown West (13th).
Not surprisingly, Pennsbury and Unionville are two favorites to make another trip to Hershey.
"Our girls team will compete for a state championship if the top six can stay healthy," said Unionville coach Mark Lacianca. "All six runners posted major personal records this past spring and have had a terrific summer."
With a deep and experienced squad, Downingtown East’s girls also should be in the thick of the race for a trip to Chocolate Town. The Cougars are looking to making it back to the PIAA state meet for the fifth time in the last six years and to improve on their fourth place finish at last year’s state championship meet.
Avon Grove’s girls also have high hopes.
"We were ninth last year at districts," said Howard. "Our dream is to see the team through to states this year."
The battle for the top five at districts should be a brutal one. Other teams around the district who have already shown serious potential are Central Bucks East, Council Rock North, North Penn, Mount Saint Joseph Academy and Central Bucks West.
On the boys side, it will take a Herculean effort for any team to deprive Henderson of another district crown. The Warriors lost just two to graduation and have their top four back.
"We should be in the mix to win the (PIAA Class AAA) state championship," said Henderson’s veteran coach Kevin Kelly.
Of last year’s top 10 teams at districts, only two had four seniors -- Holy Ghost Prep (fifth) and Haverford (sixth).
The remaining five in the top eight each had just two upperclassmen -- Great Valley (third), Council Rock North (fourth), Central Bucks East (seventh) and West Chester East (eighth).
W.C. East, which has already won two invitational meets this season, has been bolstered by the return of Chris Cummings, who missed last season because of an injury.
"Our goal is to be competitive in the league and invitational meets," said East coach Kareem Lanier. "Another goal is to qualify for the PIAA state championship meet as a team."
As for the other two teams in last year’s top 10, ninth-place Pennsbury had one senior and he was the team’s fifth runner and 10th-place Pottsgrove had a septet of all underclassmen.
Amazingly, many of the district’s top runners are still underclassmen. And, the Ches-Mont League is loaded again. So, this year’s district meet might feature the same two themes as 2011.