NEWFANE — Driving northbound on Ewings Road, the sign is unmistakable. Not only does it let drivers know they are entering Newfane, but it is the home of the 2016 New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class C cross country champions.
The school has evolved into a bonafide girls cross country powerhouse over the last six years and it has the track record — and the sign — to prove it.
The Panthers have placed in the top four of the NYSPHSAA Class C meet four times since 2016, when they won the state title. The only time Newfane did not place in the top-four was last season, when all state championships were canceled due to COVID-19. The Panthers had to settle for No. 1 in the final state rankings.
Fresh off a sixth consecutive Section VI championship, the Panthers return to the state meet at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Chenango Valley State Park, ranked third behind Bronxville and South Jefferson. Not only is Newfane looking to get back to the top of the podium, but it has a chance to do so at the site it won in 2016.
“To know that you were considered one of the best teams makes you feel great, but the fact that you don’t go there, compete and prove that you are — it’s kind of a forgotten year,” Newfane head coach Mike Heitzenrater said. “We want to go there and show people what we’re all about. This year is one of the deepest meets that I’ve seen. Bronxville seems to be a step above everybody else and then there’s a whole muddle of five other schools that could compete to win it to finish sixth.”
According to MileSplit.com, Bronxville has two runners ranked in the top-10 heading into the meet, as does South Jefferson, including the top-ranked runner, Alexa Doe. MileSplit’s speed rating merge — one point per 3 seconds, adjusted for overall race quality and depth — projects Bronxville with 79 points, South Jefferson with 95 and Newfane with 104. Voorheesville (107) and Norwood-Norfolk (110) are also in the mix.
Heitzenrater acknowledged beating Bronxville would be difficult, but also added, “You could roll the dice five times and you’d get a different order.” While Bronxville and South Jefferson have higher-rated top-end runners, team scores often hinge upon the fifth, sixth and seventh runners. Newfane’s projected score in those slots is 140, lower than Bronxville (142) and South Jefferson (145).
While there is little that can be done to stop opposing runners in cross country, Heitzenrater prints out photos of each team’s uniform so his runners know who to look for in an attempt to jockey for position throughout the race.
“You can’t necessarily go out there and shut somebody down, but you can know where they’re going to be in the race and have the wherewithal to try to finish in front of them and that’s how you shut down the other runners,” Heitzenrater said. “With a sport like cross country that’s a big mental sport, half the battle is not shutting yourself down. If we perform, that’s half the battle. Then the other team has to perform and sometimes they don’t.”
Newfane only has two seniors in its top-seven runners, but it has plenty of experience, even after last season’s state meet was canceled. Catalena Ersing, Leah Siegmann and Shelby Nerber will each be competing in their fourth state meet, while sophomore Kylie Bowman is set for her second. Meanwhile, freshmen Maggie Quattrini and Isabella Pasquale placed in the top-15 at the sectional meet.
While the Panthers currently do not have anyone projected to finish in the top-10 individually, they won the state meet in 2016 without a top-10 finisher. But Heitzenrater believes Bowman has the ability to do so, particularly after the sophomore placed third at sectionals.
“The way Kylie Bowman is running, I would not be surprised if she gets a top-10 finish,” Heitzenrater said. “She had a 30-second improvement at the sectional meet and I think she’s ready for the challenge at the state meet. It is an amazing group of girls in Class C, but I think she’s got a chance to squeak herself in there.”
Nick Sabato can be reached via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @NickSabatoGNN.