Yes, it’s only the first week of meets, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have breakthrough performances or emerging sleepers right from the jump. I’ve compiled some of the biggest week one storylines over the past 10+ years from some of the very same meets that will be contested this coming weekend. Hopefully you recognize some familiar names. I’m looking forward to adding more names to this list in the very near future.
P.S. Make sure to hit us in the comments section with the “Other” answers that so many people are listing in the poll. And feel free to share some of your favorite breakthrough opening weekend performers from year’s past.
Austin Pondel, Corry (McDowell 2012)
During his junior season, Pondel proved he was a strong cross country runner. He medaled at states and was among the top 7 PA finisher at the Footlocker Regional Championships. However, he was still a relative unknown when compared to the likes of Dan Jaskowak of Grove City (within his own district), not to mention the District One super powers. As far as most were concerned, Pondel was good but not great.
Well the senior quickly changed the narrative as he started his 2012 season with a blazing 15:36 for the 5k at McDowell. Pondel smoked a strong western field that included reigning 1600 meter state champ Ryan Smathers and fellow returning state medalist Ean DiSilvio by 37 and 21 seconds respectively. That started a huge year for Pondel that included a sub 16 at Hershey and a Footlocker Nationals appearance.
Dave Adley, Baldwin (Gateway 2007)
It seems like every year there is a dominant individual force in the WPIAL, but entering the 2007 XC season we didn’t think it would be Dave Adley. Heck, if it was a Baldwin runner, most would have bet on TJ Hobart, the sophomore sensation with 1:52 speed. But Adley emerged from the jump as a contender and never relinquished his spot. He won the Gateway Invite in 17:28 (listed as a then course record) and finished the season as WPIAL champion in Coopers a few months later. All this after Adley was a complete non-factor in the championship picture a year prior. Dave also dropped into the 9:20s on the track and clocked a 4:16 for 1600 meters producing a terrific breakout senior year after being a relative no name in D7.
Mitchell Etter, State College (Big Valley 2016)
Etter’s results were hidden in the JV race, but the then junior raced to a 16:44 completely uncontested across the Big Valley course. That time won the race by 100 seconds and would have placed him 6th in the varsity race. Although Etter got injured this past fall, he raced to multiple fast 3200s on the track and earned a spot in the preseason top 50 rankings. We will see what he has this year when he takes to the course.
Michael Stolar, Mercyhurst Prep (McDowell 2006)
We are going way back in the archives for this one. Stolar was 20th at states as a junior at Mercyhurst Prep and, although that finish is nothing to gloss over, he was buried on the returners list behind some big names including the 5th place finisher Ben Hahn. But Stolar showed he was ready to make a big leap right from the jump at his opening invite. He dropped a 15:49 to defeat Hahn by 5 seconds. Both runners were over a minute ahead of the rest of the field in this epic dual. At states, the two would finish within a second of one another, this time Hahn had the edge with his 4th place finish while Stolar took 5th. Mike made up 12 seconds on Hahn over the final mile, but came up just short of edging out the eventual 3200 state champion from outdoors.
Dylan Mountain, Altoona (Big Valley 2011)
With all-time great Wade Endress now at Penn State, Altoona would need some step up performers if they were going to stay at the top of the state rankings. The man expected to lead the charge in 2011 was Korey Replogle, who had served as Endress’s #2 the previous fall and earned a state medal for his trouble. However, Dylan Mountain quickly asserted himself as a name to watch. The senior blazed to a 16:25 victory at Big Valley. After being a relative non-factor on the state scene as a junior, Mountain climbed into the state medals finishing 21st. He also posted terrific marks at Tri-States and Districts. Dylan went on to have a fantastic collegiate career at Lock Haven.
Jake Susalla, Plum (Gateway 2013)
The Martin twins were coming off a terrific year on the track. Ethan was a surprise state champion in the 3200 and Colin had dropped major time to break 9:20 and join his twin on the medal stand. Entering the 2013 season, both runners were among the title contenders in a loaded WPIAL. But at the opening invite of the season, they got an unexpected challenge. Sophomore Jake Susalla finished the course in 17:27, just 2 seconds back of the Martin twins who raced together in 17:25. The Plum sophomore didn’t make a big tent in the 2013 season, but in 2014 he was 3rd in the WPIAL and a state medalist. Then, in 2015, Susalla overcame an injury ridden fall to explode to sub 16 on the Hershey course, posting a top 8 finish at States.
Will Kachman, Bedford (Big Valley 2013)
As just a sophomore, Kachman entered the Big Valley Invitational with something to prove. He had been solid as a freshman in AA, but hadn’t made a major impact on the state scene. However, he quickly established himself as a contender, defeating State College’s Will Cather 16:16 to 16:17. Kachman went on to finish 3rd at the state championships in AA. Will also won the Big Valley race each of the next two seasons. Kachman stacked a lot of medals in his trophy case over his XC career and, as a senior, posted one of the fastest ever AA times on the Hershey layout. Cather had a strong showing in his own right. The senior placed 25th at states and led State College to a top five finish as a team.
Mount Lebanon (Marty Uher 2011)
There was a lot of talk entering the 2011 season about the talented group of returners at Mount Lebanon High School. Although they had some depth, it was hard to imagine this school competing for a state or district championship considering they ran in the same section of the state as North Allegheny and would have to contend with D1 powers like Henderson. Well, Lebo blazed out the gates and put themselves on the map from the jump by taking the top 7 spots at their opening invite, led by defending state medalist Alex Moran. Although Lebo didn’t ultimately grab their coveted titles, they still posted one of the best finishes in school history by taking 4th place in the state. Lebo was one of the breakout stories of a wacky year in 2011 that included the rise of O’Hara and the resurgence of North Penn.
Alex Milligan, State College (Big Valley 2014)
Milligan had a solid sophomore season on the track, gaining fame as a key alternate for the 2014 4x800 state champions from State College. However, he really hit his stride his junior season. Milligan opened the year running 16:24 to take 2nd at the Big Valley Invite, ahead of district rival and state medalist Brad Foust as well as defending district champ Dominic Stroh. Milligan would go on to win the District title and place 16th at states that season.
Colin Abert, Easton (Northampton 2011)
It’s not every day that a sub 15 5k guy comes waltzing through Pennsylvania. But back in 2011, a freshman by the name of Colin Abert started his journey to that historic number. Abert won the Northampton Invite as just a freshman with a time of 16:22. Although he didn’t return to the course in the years that followed, Abert went on to take 12th, 2nd and 5th at states in the next three years with three district titles and a sub 15 performance at Paul Short.
Dominic Hockenbury, Lake Lehman (Cliff Robbins 2014)
We already knew that Dominic Hockenbury was good. He took 2nd at states in 2013 and finished his sophomore track season as state champ in the 3200. But Hockenbury proved he belonged among the state’s elite, regardless of school size, right from the jump in 2014. The eventual 5 time state champion clocked a 15:51 to dominate the Cliff Robbins Invite and assert himself as a potential Footlocker Finalist. It was the first of two straight championships for Hock at this meet.