Libby Benzer was not going to let a rainy morning and extremely muddy course stand in the way of accomplishing her goal for this season.
The St. Mary’s senior wanted to capture what had become an elusive Monsignor Martin cross country individual title in her final All-Catholic championship race after finishing third last year and second in 2015.
She did just that, running away from the field about halfway through the 3.1-mile race and never looking back Sunday morning at Knox Farm State Park in East Aurora. Benzer’s winning time of 20:59.90 was almost a minute faster than the second-place finisher.
“Coming into this race, I was really hoping to win it because it’s my senior year and my last chance to do it,” she said. “I’ve been in the top three and this year I was trying to get up into first, so I’m happy right now.”
She wasn’t exactly impressed with her time, but given the impossible footing of the soaked course, which had been rained on all week including Sunday morning, she was happy to take the end result.
“Every step my foot was sticking in the mud so I really had to pump my arms harder to keep up,” Benzer said.
Also at the competition, Cardinal O’Hara junior Tom Appenheimer ran away from the field to repeat as the boys champion in 17:32.44,
Nardin repeated as All-Catholic girls champion despite losing five of its top seven runners from last year and St. Francis won an All-Catholic boys title for the first time since 1977.
Appenheimer finished on top again, but it was a very different race from last year. He wanted to stick with the leaders for the first mile-and-a-half as they all got their footing and then planned to take off from there.
“It was very hard to run fast on this, very hard,” he said. “I was strategizing, trying to take the lead earlier, but it wound up happening around a mile-and-a-half. I was a little bit worried about how the mud would affect everything but in the end, a race is a race.”
St. Francis had already won a share of the regular season league title (along with St. Joe’s and Canisius – all with one loss) for the first time since 1988 but got over an even bigger hurdle with the All-Catholic championship. The team finished with a score of 40, just better than Canisius (54) and St. Joe’s (59).
“It’s just been a long time of digging the well and bringing these guys up as freshmen and getting them for four years and to work hard,” said eighth-year coach Jonathan Kiefer. “I really felt like they knew it was important for the school and important for them. It’s been a long time so they just wanted it and that’s what it comes down to, especially on a day like today.”
The Red Raiders had five of the race’s top 14 finishers, with seniors Jake Lanning and Andrew Michalski leading the way, finishing third and fourth, respectively, in 18:09.45 and 18:11.25. Senior Sam Attea finished seventh in 18:40.44. Michalski, who took second in last year’s race, was injured for most of this season and came back only three weeks ago.
“Believe it or not, this may not be the best team we’ve had but it’s definitely the most focused and together group and that really carried the day,” Kiefer said. “Really, they had their best race today, which is what you’ve got to do.”
Canisius sophomore Lucas Beyer, who took second in 18:00.98, and St. Joe’s sophomore Evan Hilbert, who was fifth (18:15.61), advanced along with Appenheimer and the St. Francis team to the Federation championships Nov. 18 at Bowdoin State Park in Wappingers Falls.
Nardin lost 10 seniors from last season but reloaded quickly with a youthful group which includes only one upperclassman in its top seven, according to third-year coach Rich Skrabucha. Nardin had finished the regular season undefeated.
All seven of the Nardin runners in Sunday’s race finished in the top 20, with sophomore Ella Dileo leading the way with a fourth-place finish in 22:02.00. Nardin’s next four runners – junior Grace Van Vessem (22:38.74), sophomores Rachel Martin (22:56.30) and Maggie Cryan (23:07.98) and freshman Kaitlyn Vogel (23:08.63) – finished eighth through 11th. Nardin scored a 42, and Mount St. Mary finished second with 73.
“This is the healthiest we’ve been and strongest we’ve looked entering this meet, so we’re starting to get down the process of the training,” Skrabucha said. “It’s always harder to repeat. Coming into this race there were nerves and you never know what can happen, especially if you have these kinds of rough conditions.”
In addition to the Nardin team and Benzer, advancing to the Federation meet are Buffalo Seminary junior Zoe Knauss, who finished second in 21:45.60, and Nichols freshman Holly Arrison, who placed third (21:58.40).
No runners were able to get close to Benzer, as she took off around the middle of the race. Benzer said since she is not a strong finisher once she went though the woods less than 2 miles into the race, she knew it was time to widen the gap.
The varsity races were delayed about 45 minutes due to lightning. The runners made the best of the conditions and even had some fun after the races jumping into the ponds that had formed around the course.
“When the race got delayed I was so bummed because I was ready at that point but I think the extra time actually helped because it gave me an opportunity to talk with the team and reinforce what we had to do today,” Benzer said.