Nate Henderson entered the race looking for that elusive first state gold. Although he mentioned in his post race interview, that the original plan was to hang back, he felt confident about his strength and decided to get out of dodge early and take up the early pace. That proved to be a fitting strategy as, unfortunately, one of the top competitors in the race, Ben Bumgarner of Waynesburg Central, suffered a mid pack fall about 800 meters in and was, understandably, not able to quite regain his steam.
At the front, Henderson clicked down gradually after a first mile at about 4:39. Slowly but surely, he grinded away and broke his competitors in turn before turning on the final burst he needed to sprint away from Rusty Kujdych of Neshaminy. As has been mentioned in the comment section already, it really seemed like Kujdych might have enough left to go by Henderson at some point, but Nate had the gear he needed when it counted most.
Again piggy backing off another point made by one of our readers, the last two state championships had ended with the man doing most, if not all, of the work out front (Dominic Hockenbury) being out kicked dramatically on the final lap. In 2013, we also saw a brilliant kick from Max Norris who led the charge away from Tony Russell of Henderson among others. Henderson also becomes the first person in the last decade to win the 3,000 after being the top returner in the event the previous season.
For Kujdych, I feel that that was a big breakthrough. He ran 8:37 for 3,000 meters, which converts to a PR for him indoors or out. His second place finish is also his best state championship finish and a huge improvement on last year's result in this event. Rusty is a huge talent who joins a select group of juniors to finish in the top two at states, either indoors or out, in the longest distance event offered. With each extra piece of experience, he becomes more dangerous for the future.
Also grabbing top medal honors were Zach Lefever of Ephrata, Connor McMenamin of Souderton and Seth Slavin of Pleasant Valley. Lefever has now earned his 3rd state medal in his last three attempts. He finished 6th last outdoors in the 3200 (ahead of other D3 runners and all D1 runners), took 4th in XC (behind only 3 Footlocker finalists) and now takes 3rd in his first ever indoor state championship. I think this could be an interesting name to watch come outdoors. Slavin earns a second straight medal in the event with a nice PR of his own for 3k while McMenamin has now earned medals in the mile and 3k in his last two championship appearances.
Avery Lederer and Matt Scarpill both posted new personal bests for their first individual state medals in 6th and 7th, while Bumgarner recovered from his fall enough to barely edge out Aaron Pfeil of South Fayette for the 8th and final state medal.
This was a fantastic race, featuring 9 runners who cracked the 8:50 barrier. However, things could potentially look even better this coming spring. If we introduce the Affolders to AAA and Footlocker Finalist Zach Skolnekovich to AA, we add three super stars to the championship fields. And don't forget, a year ago we saw runners from the WPIAL take spots 2 through 5 in the AAA 3200 and took 6 of the AA medals. No AAA WPIAL runners took home medals in this meet and just one WPIAL runner in general (Bumgarner in 8th) left with hardware in the 15 lapper.
How many sub 9 minute runners will we have? If any? In 2014-2015, we had a total of 10 sub 9 minute performers including a pair of underclassmen in Dahl and Brophy, but in 2016 we didn't add any to the list. While District 7 was the one to watch a year ago, that may transition over towards District 3 this year. After taking the top 4 spots in the state during XC and 9 state medals in AAA, they could set the tone for the rest of the state.
District 1 should be very interesting to watch. Last year, they had just 1 state medalist (8th place finisher Jake Brophy) in a fairly unprecedented occurrence. The 8 district qualifiers from a year ago featured a lot of fresh, new faces with limited state experience. However, this year some of those guys are back like Will Griffen, Matt D'Aquila and Brian Mass. It should be interesting to see how they mix in with McMenamin (who has experience from 2015), Lederer and Scarpill. Keep an eye out for CB West's Ben Bunch as well.
District 12 should be unleashed a little more this spring. O'Hara won't have the DMR to chase and that could mean their trio of stud milers move up to perhaps their more natural distance of 3200. Ryan James, Gavin Inglis and Patrick James will lead the charge. LaSalle didn't seem particularly absorbed in the 4x8 this indoor season so we could see a heavier focus on the 3200 for some of their top dogs. Maybe there is another Frank Livolsi lurking on that loaded roster.