Laura Syracuse put her fears to rest Saturday at the 19th annual Evening Optimist Cross Country Invitational.
The West Seneca West junior said she is motivated by the belief that someone, whether real or imagined, is about to pass her. That didn't happen at Beaver Island State Park as Syracuse ran a personal-record 20:09.9 over the 3.2-mile course to win the large school girls division. Jennifer Bakula of North Tonawanda was second in 20:21.2.
"I always concentrate that there's someone behind me to give me that determination or I just wouldn't go," said Syracuse. "I tell myself someone can catch up. I do that to other people so there's no reason why they couldn't do that to me."
The Evening Optimist featured 12 races involving boys and girls from 45 public and Catholic schools in Western New York. Gates-Chili of Section V Rochester was the only participant from outside the area. The race originated in 1958 as the Buffalo State Invitational before the Optimist, a service club for youth, took over 19 years ago.
Syracuse wasn't the only runner from West Seneca West who ran impressively on the windy, humid afternoon on Grand Island. Junior Tim Masterson of the Indians was the first Western New York finisher in the boys' large school race.
Masterson ran a personal-record 16:43.8 to finish third behind a pair of Gates-Chili runners.
"This was one of my best races," said Masterson. "I'm pretty tired, but I still pushed it to the finish. I tried (to catch the Gates-Chili runners) in the last 800, but I couldn't get them."
Matt Bowers (16:31.7) and Phil Goodwin (16:42.0) of Gates-Chili finished the race 1-2. Brendan Cameron of Kenmore West, who won the Division III-IV race last year, finished fourth in 16:47.6.
The boys' small school race yielded the fastest time of the day as junior Alex Winstel of Grand Island ran a 16:27.3. Winstel was able to outkick St. Mary's of Lancaster junior Chris Kurowski for the win. It was an impressive win for Winstel, who was coming off a disappointing 16th-place finish last weekend at the Franklinville Invitational.
Kurowski, the All-Catholic track champion in the 1600 and 3200, led the entire race before Winstel passed him in the final 400 meters.
"Coming across the sand, he picked it up and I really had nothing left," said Kurowski. "I tried to stay with him, but it wasn't enough."
Gates-Chili, Kenmore East, Grand Island and John F. Kennedy won boys' team titles in their respective divisions.
Peggy Melonic won the girls' small school division by a 20-second margin finishing in 19:00.9, fastest time of the day among the girls. The East Aurora junior also crossed the finish line first last year, but was disqualified for wearing earrings.
"It was my own stupidity for forgetting to take them out, so I kind of laughed at the situation," said Melonic. "I knew I had won the race so there was nothing else I could do. I beat Heather (Cappello of Starpoint) and that was my goal."
This year nothing stood in Melonic's way as she led from start to finish. Jenny Koeppel of Amherst was runner-up to Melonic in 19:20.2. "I really didn't enjoy the (humid running) conditions. The weather has been so funny this year you never know if it's going to be 40 degrees or 80, so I kind of try to prepare myself for anything," she said.
Lockport, Williamsville East, Nardin and Alden won girls team titles in their respective divisions. For the third year, the Optimist used a format which combines the times of all runners to determine team champions.