Lions claim VI cross country individual titles

JOHN D'ONOFRIO/STAFFLockport's Sydney Nowicki, center, was exhausted, but happy three-pete champion of the 2019 Section VI Class A (large school) girls cross country championship race at scenic Knox Farm State Park in East Aurora. This year marks the sixth consecutive season Nowicki has qualified for the state meet.

EAST AURORA — Lockport High School junior Sydney Nowicki remembers running alongside senior teammate Owen White when White first got started in the sport several years ago.

Nowicki, one of the greatest and longest-tenured runners in LHS history, recalled beating him on more than one occasion. Since then, while Nowicki's career places her alongside some of the state and nation's finest long distance runners for a fifth straight season, she's equally proud of the strides, literally, that White has made throughout his distinguished Lions' career, especially this year, going undefeated all season in dual meets and winning the Niagara Frontier League championship last week

On Friday morning, both careers collided again, but this time as the Section VI boys and girls cross country Class A (large school) individual champions at scenic, snow-covered Knox Farm State Park.

And there was still better news for local runners, as head coach Mike Heitzenrater's Newfane girls cross country team also qualified for the 2019 state meet, winning the girls Class B race. A pair of runners on coach Paul DerSarkissian's Barker Raiders are also state-bound. 

White (14th overall a year ago) came home first overall in 16:35.85 (3.1 miles), beating out two Frontier runners, senior Brian Gleason (16:59.87) who was second overall and last year's winner, junior Josh Peron (third, 17:01.92), on a deceptively, beautiful looking, but physically brutal, slippery, muddy terrain.

Nowicki qualified for her fifth consecutive state meet by winning her third straight VI large school girls' race. A testament to the margin of victory for Nowicki was that the race runner-up, West Seneca West senior Sarah Mruk, crossed the finish line 1:18 later.

In the large school class, both LHS runners, along with the boys and girls Class A team champions' (Lancaster and Orchard Park, respectively) are all headed to the state meet one week from today at SUNY Plattsburgh (Section VII). 

“I feel great. Honestly, i haven't really processed it yet, but it'll come,” White said. “It was really fun crossing that finish line in front of everybody else.”

White said the conditions were made difficult by Mother Nature's sprinkling of snow that was now melting and further trampled by the large amount of spectators, creating extremely wet conditions for all runners.

“I changed my spikes on the bottom of my shoes — definitely the longest spikes iI've ever run in before,” White said. “I used half-inch spikes and they definitely helped. It was really slippery over there (points to the area on the course around the final turn to the finish line). 

Nowicki, who was being talked about openly and positively by out-of-town parents and race officials at virtually every part of the course, stormed out to the lead at the start of the Class A girls race and never trailed. Just 19:02.50 later, she strode across the finish line with not a single runner in sight behind her.

“I heard girls behind me until about 1,000 meters,” Nowicki said. “I tried to get out fast, just so i could focus on myself. I think mentally, with me being ahead, it helped me.Next week at states  I'm gonna have girls with me. Today, I didn't have to worry about that and it made me less nervous and made me more calm and confident whereas next week, I'm gonna have to fight real hard. Overall, I had a good race, but I wish I could have been pushed a little harder. 

“I'm really proud of Owen. This year is his year. I think when I was ninth grade, I beat him a couple of races and now he's running in the low 16s and winning sectionals,” Nowicki said. “I think it's awesome to have another boy win sectionals so so that we can share that together.”

Junior Jackson Doran was ninth overall (17:22.44) for Lockport, whose boys' team finished second overall and girls' third..

“We're very happy that we had two individual winners and I think all our kids really ran their hearts out for each other and it shows,” said Lions coach Tim Willett, who praised his two champions as well.

When asked what separates elite runners like Nowicki and White with the rest of the pack, coach Willett said, “Probably the training and consistency that they put in all summer long, season after season, I think it just builds up. They're mentally focused and ready to go. When they show up on race day, they're ready to go.”

Among Class B runners, Lew-Port junior Justin Pavan finished fifth overall (16:47.87), punching a ticket to states. The Lancers (105 points) finished third, behind East Aurora (54) and Pioneer (59). The top local finisher in the girls Class B race was Grand Island super sophomore Riley Joseph (10th overall, 20:53.19). Grand Island also took 18th (eighth grader Alexandra Jensen) and 19th (sophomore Haley Fizur) to claim second place overall as a team.

Heading to states for an unprecedented fourth straight year are the Newfane Lady Panthers. Incredibly, all seven of Newfane's runners finished in the top 16 as the Lady Panthers stood at 42 points with the next closest team, Falconer 80 points away at 122. Niagara-Orleans League rival Akron (127) was third.

Heitzenrater said among the team's goals was to place his top seven in the top 15 and the Lady Panthers just barely missed out on that, with senior Lydia Chunco racing home eighth overall and sixth in Class C-1 (20:54.01), followed by eighth grader Kylie Bowman in 9th (overall in Cass C), senior Vanessa Burkard in 10th, sophomore Shelby Nerber in 14th, junior Marina Ersing 15th and sophomore Leah Siegmann 16th.

Akron's Lauren Wagner won the girls' Class C race in 19:56.73. State-bound Roy-Hart senior stalwart Anna Rickard was 4th (20:29.56). In the boys' Class C race, Newfane senior Nathan Moran was 8th (17:30.35), Roy-Hart senior Ozzy Moore was 11th (17:50.01) and Wilson senior Jon Moote was 16th (18:03.53).

Two Barker harriers are also headed to states. Raiders senior Peter DiLorenzo finished third overall in Class D (17:45.96) and freshman Mason Allee-Castro was ninth overall. However, while the top five race finishers automatically qualify for the state meet, each class sectional team is made of runners not on the winning team, which in this case meant that taking out the five Maple Grove runners who finished in the top 7, Allee-Castro qualified for his first-ever state meet as the No. 4 runner.

Recommended for you