If you know nothing about high school cross country and you live east of Syracuse, then chances are you've probably never heard of Newfane.
Middleport? Forget about it. Gasport? Nope. Lockport? Okay, maybe, if you studied.
However, if you're a scholastic long distance runner from Plattsburgh or Poughkeepsie, or other places on the other side of the Empire State, chances are you're well acquainted with the Panthers sports program we've known and loved all our lives here in Niagara County.
For the past several years, the Panthers harriers, under Mike Heitzenrater have been ranked among the top teams in the entire state.
Heitzenrater's teams are both off to 4-0 starts in the Niagara-Orleans League, but of course, coach has his sights on even bigger accomplishments than repeating as league champions. They're looking to return to the state meet and have both teams stand on the Top 3 podium.
An outrageous thought maybe a few decades ago, but today a common, realistic goal each year — thanks to an outstanding runner and motivator himself in Heitzenrater — into one of the state's most outstanding boys-girls combined long-distance teams.
The bar's been raised early on this fall with the Lady Panthers claiming their first-ever seeded Class A team title at the prestigious McQuaid Invitational in Rochester.
Newfane's girls have qualified for states three years in a row, collectively, finishing first in 2016, years ago, second in 2017 and fourth last year.
The Royal blue and white Lady Panthers feature another great combination of veteran and up-and-coming runners this year, led by seniors Lydia Chunca and Vanessa Burkard and eighth grader Kylie Bowman, who ran a blistering seventh at McQuaid amid a much older pack.
Not to be outdone, Newfane's boys cross country team finished third at states two years ago and were fifth, just a hair out of not only fourth, but third last year.
Speaking of pack, the Panthers and pack are virtually synonymous with Newfane's success generated out of their abilities to interchange and make the most out of their combined depth.
Newfane senior Nate Moran (24th at McQuaid) has been the standout, but he's supported strongly by a united front in, juniors Jayden Reynolds and Nick Baes, sophomore Andrew and Connor Cuzzacrea, sophomore Austin Burkard and senior Al Lingle.
Heitzenrater said he takes great pride in not only Newfane's success but the region's growth as well as a long-distance power
Schools including Barker, Newfane, Falconer, Southwestern and Springville are ranked among the top teams in the state. Heitzenrater said on the boys' side, this is the strongest collection of teams he can remember — teams in 2019 that are senior driven and well coached.
“It's all about building the program — getting the kids excited to want to compete and after that, teaching them how to race and giving them the confidence to be successful,” Heitzenrater said.
Feeling blue is A-OK in Newfane with coaches like this.
Follow veteran US&J sports reporter and editor John D'Onofrio on Twitter at @JohnD'Onofrio7.