The Section VI cross country runners who competed at the NYSPHSAA Championships came to a consensus when it was all said and done: The conditions at Section V’s Wayne High School made the course one of toughest, if not the toughest, they have ever run on.
The ruts in the frozen ground thawed out as temperatures approached the mid 30s in the afternoon and made way for a race more reminiscent of obstacles in the Tough Mudder than a scholastic cross country meet.
But that didn’t stop them from bringing home some hardware.
Section VI didn’t win any state titles, but five runners finished in the top five of their respective races and five of the eight sectional team champions finished in second or third place.
The event's first race, Class C boys, provided one of the highlights of the day when Newfane senior Samuel Auernhamer dove head first to beat out Bronxville’s Alex Rizzo at the finish line for fourth place.
“It was kind of just an accumulation of everything that’s happened,” Auernhamer said. “Losing those close ones, I remember in the past how much it just stung after ... and realizing this is my last race, I wanted to make sure I just really did everything that I could and made sure that I didn’t leave anything out there.”
Three years ago, Auernhamer missed out on the last state-qualifying spot when a runner beat him out with a diving finish.
“So I tell him all the time, ‘Every person can make the difference. Every single person. Samuel, remember when the guy dove in front of you and he went to states and you didn’t? Don’t let that happen again,’ and I guess that stuck in his mind because I heard he looked like Superman diving across the line,” Newfane coach Mike Heitzenrater said.
The Panthers as a team placed third for the best boys finish in school history. The girls team followed last year’s state championship with a silver medal, led by junior Kimberly Goerss’ fourth-place finish.
“The reality is that Kim is a guts and heart runner, and this course was a slow course and a course for people that have heart and guts,” Heitzenrater said. “She showed it out there today with her finish and how she compared to the other people. ... She said to me, ‘Coach Heitzenrater, I couldn’t get beat by Samuel,’ who finished fourth in the boys race.”
In Class D, Maple Grove senior Michael Peppy came in second to improve on last year’s third-place finish. The Red Dragons, who won the state team title in 2016, also finished as the runner-up.
“This is the toughest course I’ve ever ran in my life just because the conditions,” Peppy said. “The guy in first ran a great race. I tried to stay with him and catch him at the end and came up short but, man, the kid’s talented and I’m very happy with the way I ran.”
Freshman Christina Peppy, Michael’s sister, was the top runner on the girls team in fourth. They finished third (69 points) in a tight race with South Lewis (62) and Greenwich (65).
Grand Island senior Ryan Buzby came in fifth in the Class B race in 16:35.4, which was the 10th-fastest time of the entire meet. Instead of sticking to his usual strategy of staying content, he got out in front from the beginning.
“It was just a really fast start, so I knew I had to get out really fast to try and avoid the huge clump of people and the really muddy parts,” Buzby said. “The last couple races I’ve been getting out faster and it’s been working out well for me.”
Buzby beat out sectional champ Ian Russ of East Aurora, whose 11th-place finish helped the Blue Devils come in sixth as a team.
Three East Aurora girls placed in the top 25 to come in second as a team, two points ahead of Mount Sinai. Senior Molly McLaughlin finished sixth, followed by eighth-grade sister Megan four seconds later.
“I’m definitely happy with a sixth-place finish,” Molly said. “Two years ago as a sophomore I got sixth in Class C, so getting sixth in B in a much tougher field, it means a lot to me.”
In an ultra-competitive Class A girls field, Lockport freshman Sydney Nowicki came in 13th in a time of 20:03.2, good for 17th overall. North Rockland sophomore Katelyn Tuohy, one of the top runners in the nation, set the course record in 17:51.4.
“I’ve never ran at a course this hard before,” Nowicki said. “ I think the mud got to everyone. I passed a couple girls and I was super happy about it, but it’s just tiring. I’m exhausted.”
West Seneca West, led by juniors Anna Rybczynski (67th) and Emma Larkman (70th), finished eighth of nine teams in the class.
It was a disappointing day for Orchard Park’s Cal Puskar. The senior was in the mix for a top-10 finish in Class A but tripped and fell in the first 300 meters. He sprinted to catch up to the pack but couldn’t fully recover, finishing in 38th.
Clarence came in seventh out of nine Class A teams. Junior Grey Conover was the top Red Devil in 54th, followed by classmates Dan Daddario (69th) and John Insinna (70th).
Story topics: Anna Rybczynski/ Cal Puskar/ Christina Peppy/ Clarence/ Dan Daddario/ east aurora/ Emma Larkman/ grand island/ Grey Conover/ Ian Russ/ John Insinna/ Kimberly Goerss/ Lockport/ Maple Grove/ Megan McLaughlin/ Michael Peppy/ Mike Heitzenrater/ Molly McLaughlin/ Newfane/ Orchard Park/ Ryan Buzby/ Samuel Auernhamer/ Sydney Nowicki/ West Seneca West