Not even the most frustrating of travel experiences – being locked out of her own hotel room – could dampen Pittston Area senior Tara Johnson’s chipper spirits the day before her final high school meet, the biggest and fastest race of the year.
Six days after winning her first District 2 cross country championship, Johnson was beaming bright during her phone interview. Elation ceased to fade following her 19 minute, 21 second victory at Elk Lake High School last week.
“It hasn’t sunk in there yet but it’s kind of cool,” Johnson said. “I’m really excited to run at states (on Saturday).”
Johnson will be one of 44 Wyoming Valley Conference runners – 16 individuals, four team qualifiers – that will run in six PIAA state championship races Saturday at the Parkview Cross Country Course in Hershey. The first race begins at 9:30 a.m. just on the outskirts of the Hershey Park complex.
For Johnson, she will be running at 11 a.m. in the Class 3A girls race as District 2’s top runner. Competing in her fourth state championships, Johnson said she’s optimistic for her last rodeo.
“Yeah, I love the hills,” Johnson said. “I like going up them. I don’t see them as much of a hassle. Some runners struggle with them. It’s not really an issue when I run.”
State classification reshuffling two years ago made things difficult for Johnson. As a sophomore, she medaled in ninth place with a 19:37 finish in the Class 2A race. Last year, Johnson faltered against the quicker Class 3A runners, finishing the course in 20:56 for 151st place. The top 25 finishers receive medals.
But this year, Johnson is running faster and hasn’t exactly met her peak yet. Like any good mathematical-minded distance runner, Johnson did a historical analysis to see how she’d fare.
She compared herself to Dallas graduate Lindsay Oremus, noticing that Johnson’s time this year was similar to Oremus’ run in 2014. Oremus finished in second (behind teammate Ally Rome) at 2A states last year, and her time would have been good for 12th if she ran in the 3A ranks.
Johnson has been running at least a minute faster than last year’s race in every race so far this season. Running individually, her plan of attack is to team up with Wallenpaupack’s Alyssa Lafave for the first mile.
“I’m going to get out of there early so I don’t get stuck in the pack,” Johnson said. “It’s hard when you get caught behind early on.”
Trading gold for Orange
Lake-Lehman’s Dominic Hockenbury announced his college intentions just before the biggest race (so far) of his senior season.
“I can’t be happier to announce I have verbally committed to Syracuse University!!! #GoOrange,” Hockenbury posted on Twitter Friday.
Hockenbury will be looking to reclaim his title as PIAA Class 2A champion. He won last year’s race by 13 seconds with a time of 16:01. Last Saturday, Hockenbury recorded the fastest District 2 time in history with a 15 minute, 47-second performance in Dimock.
All roads lead to Rome
Dallas senior Ally Rome is hoping to be the other half of a Wyoming Valley Conference sweep of PIAA Class 2A cross country for the second straight season.
Rome won states in 2014 with a time of 18:44. She hasn’t slowed down one bit this season. Like Hockenbury, Rome reached new heights by winning district gold, clocking in at an 18:29.
She’ll be the hands-on favorite to take the state race again in 2015. Keeping in the family, it’ll likely be the Rome sisters’ eighth Top 20 finish in six years. Ally and Regan (now at William & Mary) won each of the past six district championships (Class 3A titles in 2010 and 2011).
The Dallas girls and boys squads join the Berwick boys and Hazleton Area girls teams as the WVC’s four competing teams.
Running cross country for the first time last year, Coughlin’s Franco Balbuena ended his season in traumatic fashion. After qualifying for states, Balbuena wiped out at the start before recouping himself to take 90th in the Class 2A race.
Overcoming that early slip-up is Balbuena’s motivation to “go out with a bang in his senior year,” he said.
To make it this year, the Coughlin runner finished with an impressive 17:04 performance behind a pair of Dallas’ top runners for seventh place. If he’s able to get in the front pack, he and coach Paul McGrane said a state medal is an attainable goal, considering District 2’s recent successes at the state race
“I like to think that I have a shot at medaling at states,” Balbuena said. “But, when it comes down to it, I don’t care if I finish 26th or 100th. I just want to run my best and give myself a chance at a medal.”
Franco said he’s aiming to finish in the high-16s.
Reach Times Leader sports at 570-829-7143 or on Twitter @tlsports.