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East Aurora sets the standard others must chase

At first glance, one might look at the result and assume it’s just East Aurora being East Aurora. That person would be right but wouldn’t know the whole story.

When the Blue Devils’ boys cross country team recently captured fourth place in the large school division of the Knox Invitational, it definitely was an example of East Aurora being East Aurora. It was a chance for longtime coach Walt McLaughlin to get his junior varsity runners some big meet experience.

Let’s reiterate – that was the junior varsity more than holding its own in a big race and almost winning while filling in for the varsity.

Two weeks ago, the junior varsity – featuring Matt Sieracki, Kiernan Lauber, John Lyons, Hunter Grad, Eric O’Connor – did even better. It won the small schools race at Alden while the varsity crew of Kenny Vasbinder, Matthew McLaughlin, TJ Murray, Will Zink, Bryan Hensen, Kevin Murnock and Pat Murray won the large school meet at the same event.

“When we don’t run the top kids, it just gives the next group an opportunity to step up and experience being the varsity runners without having another seven runners ahead of them,” coach Walt McLaughlin said. “That was a great opportunity for those boys to do that. It was really about racing at a higher level because there’s better competition and they’re a great group of kids.”

Let’s review. EA, a small Class C-sized school, has the luxury of sending in Kid Flash and the Teen Titans or grown-up Flash and the Justice League to deal with physical challenges. Yes, life is good for East Aurora cross country.

The Blue Devils began the week not only as the top-ranked team among small schools in Western New York, they’re No. 1 in the state Class C poll, too. It’s why East Aurora figures to be the team to beat this Saturday when it hosts the ECIC Championships.

Historically, East Aurora has fielded between top-notch and championship-caliber boys and girls cross country teams. The boys have won two state titles, while the girls have six to their credit under 15-year coach McLaughlin.

“This is definitely the strongest group we’ve had,” on the boys side, McLaughlin said. “It’s really a credit to their hard work.”

While the JV team has done well in brief varsity appearances, the top seven for EA are in a different stratosphere as far as their development.

East Aurora’s main varsity team hasn’t lost this season, whether it’s in dual meets or at invitational meets. The Blue Devils went unbeaten in ECIC III to capture their 14th straight divisional title. They went 4 for 4 at invitationals, winning the prestigious McQuaid Invitational, along with titles at West Seneca, East Aurora and Alden.

Five of the Blue Devils’ varsity seven are ranked in the top 25 in the state Class C poll. Vasbinder, a junior, is EA’s top runner and is ranked No. 1 in the state. Classmates McLaughlin (ninth), Zink (18th), Murray (19th) and Murnock (25th) are the others.

“The measuring stick would be Kenny breaking 15 minutes” with a winning time of 14:53.6 “at McQuaid and setting the record he has at Alden,” said McLaughlin, noting that Vasbinder broke the Alden course mark set by ex-Lake Shore star and current Syracuse University runner T.J. Hornberger. Vasbinder posted a time of 15:32.91, seven hundredths of a second faster than Hornberger.

“That speaks for itself as our front runner,” McLaughlin said. “Our time gap for the whole group is about a minute. That’s pretty solid for a boys team.”

“Kenny Vasbinder has taken his running to a different level, and he takes them,” as a team, “to a different level,” said Sweet Home coach Brian Lombardo.

Of course, that doesn’t guarantee anything.

East Aurora’s boys were considered championship-caliber last year but were part of a deep Class B Division. EA won the B-2 title but lost via tiebreaker for the overall Class B to B-1 champ Sweet Home.

“I definitely think they’ve used that as motivation,” McLaughlin said. “Now, they’re juniors – bigger, faster, stronger. Right?”

Yes, but save some of that spotlight for EA’s girls team.

Last year’s state runner-up looks to return to the state champions’ podium. The Blue Devils have one of the area’s top runners in Sophia Tasselmyer. EA won five invitational races and has gone unbeaten the last 14 years in ECIC.

Other competitors who make EA shine include Fiona Danieu, Maisey Webster, Liz O’Brien, Hannah Weppner, Tori Klimowicz, Molly McLaughlin and Erin Cocca.