Sharon runners

This trio of Sharon High runners will be competing for medals at the PIAA State Cross Country Championships. From left: Natalie Ostheimer, Abby Douglas and Gianna Labbiento.

Just a junior, perhaps, but Sharon High standout Gianna Labbiento has a unique perspective. Labbiento will lead Mercer County’s contingent into this Saturday’s PIAA Cross Country Championships at Hershey’s Parkview Course.

Labbiento 3-peated as District 10 Class 2A champion last week in Buhl Farm Park, and will make her 3rd consecutive appearance on the statewide stage. She finished 4th as a freshman (18:52), then bettered that by placing 3rd last season as a sophomore (though 13 seconds later in 19:05).

According to research from Sharon City School District’s Matt Vannoy, Labbiento has logged the two-fastest times for a Lady Tiger harrier at state. Labbiento actually bypassed her role-model – former Sharon standout Jordan Williams, who ran 19:31 at the 2015 championships (placing 17th), then 20:14 in 2016.

After becoming the county’s 1st female harrier to earn a D-10 3-peat since Greenville’s Jesi Christiansen (1999-2001), Labbiento related, “It’s amazing! I remember freshman year, wanting to make it to states, and winning districts was just a dream come true. And ever since then I’ve just been trying to top that goal. 

“ ... As a middle-school runner I always looked up to Jordan,” Labbiento continued. “I wanted to be just like her; she had so many amazing accomplishments, and I was like, ‘I want to do that when I’m in high school.’ And finally when I got to high school that’s what my mind was set on: taking her place, winning districts, and I did that. I keep in contact with (Williams) now; she’s someone that I look to for advice.”

Observed veteran coach Lou Marriotti, “Gianna looked up to Jordan quite a bit, respected her, admired what she’d accomplished, tried to mimic what Jordan had done. I know they were great friends and I know they still communicate back and forth with one another, Yeah (Williams) was a great inspiration to Gianna.”

Coming full circle, Labbiento will lead a pair of freshman Lady Tigers teammates to state in Natalie Ostheimer and Abby Douglas, who ended 8th (20:01) and 10th (20:09), respectively, at the D-10 Championships. Borrowing another sport’s metaphor, the baton has been passed from Williams, to Labbiento, to Ostheimer and Douglas.

“I love having them here with me!” Labbiento gushed. “We push each other. We’re around the same (skill) level, so we can work with each other in workouts. I just love them so much! It’s so nice having teammates; it’s hard to do the work by yourself. We just tell each other how we’re feeling, we help each other out. If someone doesn’t feel good we help them through the good times, the bad times. And I am so happy that we all three made it to the state championships.”

“Natalie and Abby both train with Gianna ... and they look up to her and they try and mimic what she is doing, and it helps all three,” Marriotti said. 

According to Vannoy’s research, the Lady Tigers’ trio will be the first in program annals since the Chris Houck-coached triumvirate of Nadine Luchette, Debbie Sampson and Mindy Frazier staked Sharon to a team berths from 1983-85.

Regarding this weekend, Labbiento allowed, “You just never know what you’re gonna get; some years there’s more competition than others,” while admitting winning a commonwealth crown will be difficult.

“There’s a lot of competition this year at states – Marlee Starliper (Northern), Taryn Parks (Greencastle-Antrim), Gionna Quarzo (Brownsville) – and a lot of younger runners that have come up,” Labbiento forecasted. “I think states this year will be the most competitive it’s ever been in my high school career. So it will be difficult for me to take third (again), but I’m going for it.”

“It’s a fantastic accomplishment!” praised Marriotti, who has coached at Grove City, Hickory and Sharon. “I know of only a few other kids who have ever won three district titles. It’s a great accomplishment for her. She’s worked hard to come back from that stress fracture (sustained last spring). We had a rough patch at the beginning of the season ‘cause she was unable to do the typical training that we do in the summer. But she’s come along, put in the hard work, and seeing the benefits of it.

“She’s running stronger now,” Marriotti maintained. “We got a late start, but we’ve been free of injury this season. It might’ve been because of the easier spring and summer that we took. She’s reaching her peak right at the right time with states, and I know she wants to go out and make the regional and nationals. She’s looking good right now.”

The Lady Tigers took a trip earlier this autumn to the annual Foundation Race, which is contested on the Parkview Course.

“(Labbiento) ran the Foundation Race. We were still in the process of comin’ back, but she wanted to see the state course,” Marriotti related. “(Coach Bill Divens) brought our whole girls’ team out there. Our two freshmen who qualified for states, they’ve seen the course, too, so it’ll help them out immensely.”

Speaking on behalf of the area aggregation, Marriotti said, “Oh, we have great competition in District 10. Region 1 and 2 has fabulous runners. Grace (Mason) and Gianna have battled in different races. ... But they’re great friends ... great respect for one another. It’s just good competition for everyone. I think it helps both runners.”

According to PIAA.org, the girls’ A, AA and AAA races will begin at 9:30, 10:15 and 11 a.m., respectively, with the boys’ A, AA and AAA runs set for 11:45 a.m. and 12:30 and 1:35 p.m. starts. This will be the 80th boys’ state championship race, and 49th for girls.

Here is a sampling of sentiments from others last week following the annual District 10 Championships:

• Ellie Wanner, Kennedy Catholic High senior who will be making her 4th consecutive appearance on the statewide stage (placing 17th as a sophomore and 9th as a junior).

“It’s just really great to be able to achieve this level. I have never really thought about it. ... I guess you just have to know where you are and where your ability lies. So being able to go all four years is incredible! 

“When I started this sport I never thought that I’d be able to do it.

“It’s really great to be up there with the other sports at Kennedy. Our basketball team has always done really well at states, and we even had a runner a couple years ago (Marina Wareham), and she did awesome! So it’s really great to be up there with people I used to look up to.”

Wanner was wary last weekend at districts.

“Right off the bat, I didn’t really feel that great at the start. ... usually in that first hundred meters you can tell if it’s gonna be your day or not. It can be nerves ... it’s just kind’ve how much you let get in your head ... and sometimes your legs just don’t have it. Right at the start it was, like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I don’t know if this is our race.’ But I just kept fighting for it and tried my best to stick with (Lakeview High senior standout) Claire Oliver (6th in 20:43, while Wanner was 9th in 20:51).”

“Our county’s super-strong, and it’s really great to be able to run against the major competition every weekend. Like Claire Oliver. She’s been my greatest ‘pusher’ ever since my freshman year, I’ve always wanted to be with her, Wanner continued. “So that’s definitely helped, just being able to run with that competition and being friends with all of them.”

Kennedy Catholic – where the ageless Houck has been serving as an assistant coach for years – had difficulty putting together an entire girls’ team as the school offers volleyball, tennis and soccer for females during the fall. It’s made for a sometimes lonely existence for Wanner.

“I’ve just really learned – and its been that way for me kind’ve since freshman year – I just had to learn how to push myself in workouts, and know that I do have limits and try and get to them. So, pushing myself as much as I can and knowing where I’m at really helps, for sure,” she replied in Buhl Farm Park, later adding,

“The more I thought about it the more I realized I have never really been by myself. I have always had the support of my mom and my family, my coach, and my friends. Not one step I took in that race was on my own, and I’m so grateful for everyone that has helped me, and for those who can no longer watch me race but are carried in my heart.” 

Wanner concluded, “I guess it’s my last high school race ever in cross country. So my goal is just to finish the race and do my best and be happy with it,” later looking forward to her future, adding, “The goal is to run cross country in college ... definitely find the college that’s for me (as a zoology/biology major), and keep doing this sport for as long as I can.”

• To Wanner’s point, 10th-year Lakeview Lady Sailors’ skipper Glenn Dosch said in praise of Oliver, (6th at districts in 20:43), “A-h-h-h-h ... Claire. She is absolutely – since the ninth grade – one of the most disciplined, self-motivated ... she takes nothing for granted ... she’s well researched – she could coach herself, she’s that good. She’s just an awesome young lady.”

Although Dosch deflects the credit to his harriers, he will take a team to state for the 4th consecutive campaign, as Lakeview ended as D-10 runner-up to Wilmington last week.

• Hannah Wagner of Reynolds ended 3rd in 20:33 in Class 1A at districts – behind Grace Mason (19:38) and West Middlesex frosh Lia Bartholomew (20:20).

“I wanted to go out with the front group, and I kind’ve just ended up running on my own. But I was okay with it,” Wagner explained. “My goal was top three, so getting third was good. I’m mostly focused on states.

“District 10 is definitely really competitive and it pushes me, because if I do well here I most likely will do well at the next level. So I’m glad I have tough competition.”

Not unlike Labbiento, Wagner, a junior, will be joined by sophomore teammate Bethany Litwiler (12th, 20:59). Paige Clyde (22:36), Kendall McLaughlin (22:46), Sienna Fiorenza (23:54), Johnna Foore (24:46) and Addison Coburn (27:02) also competed at D-10 for Reynolds.

“We’ve improved a lot this year,” Wagner said. “Our goal (was) top three teams here, but we’re all happy with how we did.”

Wagner will make her 3rd trip to state in cross country, and said, “Ever since qualifying freshman year, my goal was just to qualify every year, and I have one more year to do it, so that’s the goal – and state medals these next years. 

“We did the Foundation Race, so I feel pretty good about it. I’m stronger on hills, rather than flat courses. I ran a twenty-fifty (at the Foundation Race), so my goal for states is to be under that,” she added, emphasizing, “I want to be in the top fifteen this year. ... Freshman year I was in the 130’s ... and  last year I was 28th.”

• Mike Morneweck has mentored Mercer High track & field for 2-plus decades, but is in his 2nd season at the Lady M’s cross country helm. He will accompany yet another freshman, Willow Myers, who finished 4th (20:35) at districts.

“Willow came out and did what she needed to do, and I’m just so proud of her, bein’ a freshman,” began Morneweck, a former Greenville gridiron standout. “She’s just worked really hard this year, and her dad has been a God-send for the whole team, really. He’s worked really hard with her, gettin’ her ready for the race. Whatever they’re doin’ outside of what we do at practice is really workin’ for them. During the summer she was actually competing in a triathlon series. So not only was she running miles, but she was putting in a lot of biking miles and a lot of swimming miles.

“So I think, with all that cross-training, gettin’ her off her feet – not havin’ all that impact – was huge!” Morneweck continued, relating with a chuckle, “I’m a biker, myself, ‘cause I can’t run; both my knees are shot, so biking is all I can do. But it’s great having her do that cross-training. She just stays in shape year ‘round.

“At the beginning of the year,’ Morneweck admitted regarding Myers, “if you would’ve said that she’d would’ve been in the top ten (at districts), I would’ve been surprised. But seeing her run throughout the year and just the way she’s improved throughout the season, by the end of the season that’s right where we thought she would be. I was a little surprised with Hannah (Wagner) comin’ back on her like that, but it’s the competitiveness of the day, you know?”

Morneweck echoed the sentiments of others regarding Mercer County’s high-caliber cross country competition.

“Oh, with these girls ... being in Region 1, and Wilmington being Region 2, we didn’t really see Grace (Mason) that much. But runnin’ against Hannah in the dual meet and runnin’ against Lia (Bartholomew) in the dual meet was big. It was a dogfight when we went against Middlesex at the end of the year. It came down to the last hundred meters, ‘cause they were back-and-forth on the course the whole time. ... We hadn’t seen Wilmington much at all, but I knew Grace was tough competition. And I think it’s great havin’ all these girls seein’ each other in the dual meets and invitationals.

“They go after each other, but they’re all friends – they all congratulate each other at the end. It’s good stuff.”

Greenville’s great grid success made Morneweck appreciate the rewards of the “Second Season” in any sport.

“It’s great! Always makin’ it to the later rounds of the playoffs, per se, it’s what the kids get excited about. We’re still building. Last year I had only three girls; this year we’re at six, and we’re already lookin’ toward next year. I know Willow’s lookin’ to (this week), but I think the rest of the team – even my daughter (Merrick), who’s really not a cross country runner, per se – but she’s already said, ‘What about this for next year?’ So it’s exciting to hear about kids who’re excited about running. I enjoy it.”

• Reynolds’ Troy Hart defended his District 10 Class 1A crown, nipping Cochranton’s Noah Bernarding at the tape in 16:30. Hart is headed to Hershey for the 3rd straight season. As a freshman he missed the cut by 1 berth, then as a sophomore rolled his ankle and finished 54th. However last year he placed 19th, and this weekend?

“Lookin’ to get down in the top ten, top five area,” he replied. “I feel blessed every time I go – especially at districts, knowing this is most peoples’ last race of the year. 

“I learned by sophomore year you have to go out so much harder, because if you don’t, you get boxed in,” Hart related. “Last year I did that (got out fast) and was in the top fifteen for the first mile-and-a-half. But (the frontrunners) pulled away, and I stayed right where I was.”

But he is prepared, relating, “Oh, Mercer County, in cross country – and all sports – is so competitive! Everywhere you go, you always see rivalries, competition between the runners. It’s so competitive.”  

• Perhaps the most proud person in Buhl Farm Park last Saturday was 20th-year Reynolds Coach Wayne Santom.

“Oh, my goodness! The girls started it off, placing fourth ... We’re so proud of them, they worked so hard this season. And what’s really rewarding – not only as a coach, but just as somebody who appreciates runners who do the work – they’ve been working hard all season, and they’re rewarded at the end of the season. It’s so nice to see. ... Last year (at state, Wagner) took off, like, ninety places from the year before, which was a tremendous thing, and she really wants to medal – that’s the goal.

“And (the girls) set the stage for ... Troy,” Santom continued. “Troy has so much guts and so much heart. He just went out and got it. 

“He was confident with where he was, and it just came down to a ‘kick’ at the end. Troy’s not known for his ‘kick,’ but I guess when he wants to repeat, go back-to-back, there’s a lot of motivation behind that; he really wanted to win. .. He had District 10 on his mind – being the champ – ever since the end of last year. He knows his strengths. But I give Noah (Bernarding) a lot of credit, him stayin’ with Troy the whole time and comin’ down to the end, ‘cause he knows Troy doesn’t have that ‘kick.’

“But when push comes to shove and you want to be first, Troy’s such a hard worker, such a smart runner. I couldn’t be more happy for him,” Santom said. “We’re looking forward to his last race. 

“... Troy has such a good support staff – the school has been behind him, his family is with him, and his teammates are all in ... 

“I’ve taken two (runners to state), but never taken three, so it’s a good feeling to know ... it’s just icing on the cake,” Santom summarized. “From running in the summer, to where we are now. It’s just a huge process. ... These seniors (Adam Wilcox and Gage Bozzo) are incredible! ... They’re Troy’s biggest fans. They’re just as happy as Troy is that he’s going (to state). The camaraderie with this team ... I wish I could take ‘em all (this) week, but I don’t think the school will allow it. But it’s just amazing!

“Our coaches have done a great job all year. It’s icing on the cake for them, too. They’ve put in just as much work as these kids do,” Santom praised.

• At state, Mason will be joined by her sister, Emma, as well as Becka Book, Samantha Gioan, Elise Hilton, and Maddalena and Claudia DiMuccio. Oliver’s Lady Sailors’ teammates include Mikalya Montgomery, Carly Amon, Abby Mellon Aubrey Hogue, Lydia Bernard, and Lauren Turik.

Perennial power Grove City boys and 21st-year Head Coach Mike Sample will compete at state with Joe-Joe Somora, Gabriel Nichols, Toby and Josh Jones, Cael McEwen, Chad Helmininack, and Caleb Hawke, while Coach Morgan Grandy’s West Middlesex boys will be led by Luke Mantzell, Giovanni Rococi, Derek Johnson, Nick Varga, Drake Muir, Devin Gruver, and Ashton Pierce.

• Other area qualifiers include: Greenville’s Macy Blatt, Sharpsville’s Lauren Mehler, Hickory’s Cole Frazier, Slippery Rock’s Kristian Sosa, Lakeview’s Colson Jenkins, and Wilmington’s Dale Nestor.

Sample and Grove City have garnered 10 gold medals in District 10 competition (plus a runner-up berth) in his 2-plus decades.

“We wanted to get to (this) week, and we got to (this) week. We want to make sure that we’re at peak performance for (this) week, ‘cause we’re gonna be one of the top teams in the state, and we want to make sure we represent District 10, and the school, well.”

Continuing, Sample emphasized, “I think (the D-10 championships are) all different, but I think one thing needs to be heard: I get to talk to (the media), but it’s really (assistant coaches) Joan Schilling, Kelly Owrey, Brian Buchan and Ben English. They get these kids prepared from the middle school level, with Joan and Brian, to the work that Ben and Kelly do at the high school. I share it with all of them. I get to speak (to the media), but they’re the ones that deserve the credit. They’re the ‘power behind the throne,’ so to speak,” a chuckling Sample said later adding more seriously in regard to his father, John, 

“I’d like to think he’s lookin’ down and appreciates what he and I built, and I’ve been able to continue. We speak and I share thoughts. I touch base with my mom and we talk a little bit about what we’ve been able to do,” Sample related. “It’s something my father and I did together. I miss that, but I know he’d be proud.

“It’s not because we win; it’s because I enjoy workin’ with the kids,” Sample stressed. “I enjoy workin’ with the coaching staff we’ve assembled. We get along well and we do things together. It’s a fun group of people to work with. The kids that come through (the program) are always ones that are respectful, kind. You get ‘em to work hard and you get ‘em to realize some of their potential. They make it more enjoyable when you don’t have to coach as much.

“A number of years ago,” Sample related regarding his father, “he looked at me and said, ‘Quit coaching.’ And for the rest of the season I couldn’t understand what he was talkin’ about ... why he was tellin’ me to quit coaching? He said, ‘No. Let the coaches coach; you manage the team.’ That was a lesson. ... He told me at the end of the season, ‘Manage the program; keep the people in the program you need to you can step back and manage and they do the coaching,’ And it’s been something I’ve carried with me for the last ten years, since we’ve risen to where we’re at now. And it all goes back to him.

“I would think that you would put us up there with some of the other (Mercer County) premier programs that have had success over the years,” Sample admitted. “And what I’m most proud of is, these kids that come up through middle school and come up into the high school, we don’t look anywhere else to get kids; they’re all home-grown right here in Grove City, and that’s pretty good for us, knowing that ... when (Grove City-area long-distance runners) look at the tradition and they want to continue being part of that, which is pretty nice. A lot of support from the community, lot of support from the parents and the school district, so that keeps coaching fun, as well.”

ED FARRELL is assistant sports editor for The Herald. E-mail him at efarrell@sharonherald.com.