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County XC runners detail state experiences

North Catholic’s Plastino finishes 2nd in PIAA Class 2A girls race
North Catholic freshman Gracie Plastino runs in a girls cross country meet
North Catholic freshman Gracie Plastino runs in a girls cross country meet this season. With a time of 19 minutes, 12 seconds, Plastino finished as the runner-up in the recent PIAA Class 2A Girls Cross Country Championship meet in Hershey. Submitted Photo

The setting didn’t seem real to North Catholic freshman Gracie Plastino.

Before long, she’d trick herself into believing that the only girl in front of her wasn’t either.

“At the last leg of the race — the last half-mile — I convinced myself that the girl that was in first wasn’t there and I was winning, so I had that final push,” said Plastino, who finished as the runner-up at the recent PIAA Class 2A Girls Cross Country Championship meet in Hershey. “I gave all I had, and that last 100 meters ... I’ve never run that fast before.”

It wasn’t a technique she’d used before. However, it was one that effectively paved the way to the best finish by any North Catholic runner — girls or boys — in the event’s history. The effort helped the Trojanettes finish fourth in the team standings, too.

“It just kind of naturally happened,” said Plastino, who wrapped up her jaunt in 19 minutes, 12 seconds. “I just kind of forgot that she was there.”

The moment, she added, felt surreal from the outset.

“I was on the starting line, talking to other teams, and I was like, ‘Is this really starting? Because it doesn’t feel like it’s starting,’” Plastino said.

Her initial goal was just to stay within the top 25. She got done 24 seconds behind first-place finisher Baylee Espinosa, a sophomore from Lewisburg Area.

“The course really suits Gracie,” North coach Tim Souders said. “She’s a really strong hill runner and it’s a very hilly course. She just powered up the hills, and she passed a lot of people on the hills.”

Eventually, Plastino came back down to Earth.

“When I finished the race, I was thinking, ‘Wow, that really hurt. That was rough,’” she said. “Then, it came to reality. I was like, ‘As a freshman, I just got second place at states.’ ... I was so proud of myself for pushing myself to do that, and so proud of my team for pushing me.”

Uphill Battle

Freeport junior Michael Braun was paying attention during his first trip to Hershey — a September visit in which he finished fourth in Class 2A in the PIAA Foundation XC Invitational.

“I knew from running that that kids either do really well on the hill or they fall apart,” said Braun, who’d posted a time of 16 minutes, 30 seconds at that event. “I just knew as long as I could make it up the hill somewhat good, I (was) going to pass a lot of people and make up a lot of time.”

That method worked well during his return to the course, netting him ninth place in the recent PIAA Class 2A Boys Cross Country Championship meet. Braun planned to start fairly conservatively and gradually work his way through the pack.

“Especially on the first two hills,” Braun said. “That really makes and breaks people for the first and middle parts of the race. ... I did end up going a little slower than I wanted to and wasn’t quite where I wanted to be.”

He used the hills to get by other runners, setting himself up well for the home stretch and a finish of 16 minutes, 27 seconds.

“Throughout the last mile, I just slowly started catching up to the small pack in front of me,” Braun said. “The last half a mile, I kind of just pushed and gave it everything I got.”

Redemption Run

Butler senior Ava Brewster’s 20th-place finish at the WPIAL Class 3A Girls Cross Country Championship meet was an outlier.

“We had thought she would be in the low 19s — like 19:10 or so — but it wasn’t to be,” Golden Tornado coach Rick Davanzati said of Brewster, who finished that race in 19:36.7. “She went out a little hard at the WPIAL championships and she faded a little bit.”

A pain on the side of her abdomen was to blame for the underwhelming trot.

“I was looking to go under 19 (minutes),” Brewster said. “Then — a half-mile in — I got a terrible side stitch. ... I ran the rest of the race heaving over and pushing on it, trying to get it to go away, but it never went away. I actually had it for a couple days after.”

She made up for it by finishing 49th in a field of 237 at the state title meet. Her time was 20 minutes, 2 seconds.

“That was probably the best race of the season I had,” Brewster said. “I was really powering up the hills and using the downhills.”

Davanzati took notice of the improvement.

“She ran 31 seconds faster than she did last year at the state meet ... but she lost two places,” Davanzati said. “That just shows what the quality of the field was like.”

Last Laugh

From seventh-best runner on his own team to 22nd-best in his classification.

Such was the tale of Butler senior Owen Dressler, who finished his run in the PIAA Class 3A Boys Cross Country Championship meet in 16 minutes, 32 seconds.

“When he came up from the junior high, I looked at him — and I had seven eighth-graders that were moving into ninth grade,” Davanzati said of a joke the two have. “I tell him, ‘If you’d asked me where you’d be in that hierarchy, I would’ve said you were the seventh guy.’ I think he might’ve agreed at that point, but something clicked in him.”

After Dressler’s last track meet as a freshman, he vowed to Davanzati that he’d be a better runner than his older brother, Aden Dressler, who’s now running at Washington & Jefferson College.

It started clicking for the younger Dressler after that.

“He’s one of those kids that, in terms of personality, you wouldn’t think he’s the tough kid,” Davanzati said. “But, when you get him out on the course running, he’s an extremely intense competitor — and he showed that at the state meet.”

Bright Lights

Mars freshman Hailey Long wasn’t sure what to expect from her first visit to the PIAA Class 3A Girls Cross Country Championship meet.

“When we pulled up to walk the course, everyone was running and people were stretching and stuff,” Long said. “That’s when I realized this was a big event. People were already getting ready — and I wasn’t even ready yet. That’s kind of when I was like, ‘Oh, shoot. This is real.’”

Upon finishing her run in 19 minutes, 51 seconds, Long was proud no matter where she placed — though learning of the exacts was a pleasant surprise.

“There were so many people there that I couldn’t find my coach,” Long said. “I was kind of just sitting there with a few of my friends around me, and they were like, ‘I think you got, like, 50th.’”

She would’ve been pleased with that outcome. Rather, she finished 38th. Long aims to medal at states next year, if not finish in the top 10.

All Adds Up

For Butler junior Makayla McLister, the state meet experience was the payoff of quiet toil.

“At the end of last season, I decided that I wanted to take my performances to the next level,” she said. “I really dug deep through the winter, and the spring, and the summer. ... I took my training to the next level, and I really focused.”

That commitment didn’t go unnoticed to Davanzati, who watched her finish the event in 20 minutes, 43 seconds.

“She’s trusted in the process, so to speak, and followed everything we’ve asked her to do,” he said. “She started to blossom quite a bit this season. ... She went from running in the high 21s, low 22s into the high-to-mid 19s now.”

For the entirety of the season, McLister ran side-by-side with classmate Madi McGarrah in workouts.

“Madi and Makayla, early on, switched off and on,” Davanzati said. “One would beat the other, and then (the other way around).”

McLister finished 13 seconds ahead of McGarrah at the WPIAL title meet. McGarrah was still able to room with McLister in Hershey.

“Having somebody to race and train with makes it so much better mentally,” McLister said. “Because you have someone to encourage you and push you on days where you’re not feeling great.”

Hailey Long
Hailey Long
Michael Braun
Michael Braun
Makayla McLister
Makayla McLister

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