The year of 2018 was arguably the best season in program history for the Elizabethtown Area High School girls cross country team. Amazingly, many of the Lady Bears will tell you that they could’ve done even better, in spite of an undefeated regular season, their first Section Two title, a second place finish at leagues and an eighth-place finish at districts.
To many, however, the PIAA Championships are the ultimate prize, and while the three Lady Bears in competition may not have achieved all that they wanted, they did outperform the majority of the 228 Class 3A runners on Saturday, Nov. 3, at the Parkview Course in Hershey.
The Elizabethtown trio of senior Cat Shontz, junior Katie Locker and sophomore Madeline Quinn each placed inside the top 35, one of five teams (North Allegheny, West Chester Henderson, Fox Chapel and State College) to do so, all the more impressive considering the other four teams all placed in the top five for the overall team standings.
“If you want to look at it with the glasses half full, you could say that Maddie and Cat improved a heck of lot compared to last year,” head coach Mark Gallagher said. “We thought going in that all three girls would be getting a medal, but the lesson is that it’s easy to sit here and say ‘Let’s get top 25,’ but it’s something else to go ahead and do it. When you’re at the state level, there are just so many great runners that you haven’t seen all year. You dominate locally, but all of a sudden, you’re up against kids from Pittsburgh, Philly and up north. It’s not that we were ignorant. The moral (of the) story is that if you’re not at the top of your game, you’re gonna pay the price. Cat, Maddie and Katie ran well compared to 99 percent of runners, but by their standards, it wasn’t their best day.”
Shontz was the lone Elizabethtown entrant to medal, finishing 25th with a time of 20:04. It was her best placement in states after three previous years of competition (95th in 2015, 47th in 2016, 60th in 2017). She also had the second fastest time of any Lancaster-Lebanon League runner in the field behind sophomore Gwyneth Young of Cedar Crest. While satisfied with the result, Shontz believes she could’ve done a bit more down the stretch.
“It’s nice to see that I did end up achieving something,” Shontz said. “But it’s still not as good as I wanted it to be, so I’m a little disappointed. I’m happy that I still fought through, but I think I could’ve done better.”
“I couldn’t be happier for her,” Gallagher said. “It sounds like a cliched phrase, but it’s beyond reality. She’s done just a phenomenal amount of work between cross country and track for four years, and whether it’s the first-place medal or the 25th, for her to walk away from the championships with something to hang on the wall at home is great. She earned that, and it just speaks volumes. Anyone of those three could’ve been the one to get the medal, and Cat used the right strategy that worked for her to make sure she got the mission accomplished.”
Locker was the first runner to miss out on medalling, taking 26th in 20:09, one spot and five seconds behind Shontz. She was previously ninth last year and 32nd in 2016. Quinn wasn’t far behind, placing 34th in 20:21, an improvement from her 74th-place finish in 2017. All three runners agreed that they began the race quicker than their usual pace, which led to them falling slightly behind the front pack down the stretch.
“We definitely went out too fast,” Locker said. “I think everyone went out fast, so we just followed. We needed to because there were a lot of people (trying) to get into that small chute where that little thin path was. I guess we just couldn’t keep that same pace because we weren’t used to it.”
“We tried to break right at the end,” Quinn said. “I pushed as hard as I could, but I was definitely exhausted, and I wasn’t feeling too good this race. I guess it’s nice to know that I improved, but it’s still not where I was hoping to be.”
“There’s gonna be a lot of growth and learning from this about how we move forward next year,” Gallagher said. “We took a day to celebrate when we did well at leagues and districts and then got back to work. For those two, it’s kind of the opposite. It’s like ‘Let’s take 24 hours to be naturally upset,’ then start looking ahead and work on improving our weaknesses.”
In spite of not completely reaching all their goals at states, Shontz, Locker and Quinn have much to be proud of. They collectively finished in the top three at each regular season meet, the top four at the L-L League Championship and the top five at the District 3 Championship. The loss of Shontz to graduation in June will be a blow to the team on and off the field.
“It’s gonna be sad,” Shontz said. “I’m gonna miss them a lot. But I know that they’re gonna do well because they’re just really good athletes.”
“We’re not gonna have her experience or her encouragement,” Locker said. “Me and Madeline are gonna try to push through and be there for each other, and we know that Cat will always be there cheering us on whether she’s at the race or not.”
“It’s funny,” Gallagher said with a smile while holding back tears. “Just yesterday, Cat said laughingly ‘Coach, when we have our awards night, are you gonna be crying?’ And I’m not one to cry that often. She’s not just a runner; she leads by example. When there’s something to be done, she just quietly gets things done. All the other kids know what to do without her saying anything because she’s doing it the right way. She’s not the most gifted runner in the history of the world, but she’s the hardest worker and does everything right.”
Still, Locker and Quinn will both be back, and there’s potential for the Lady Bears to continue their success from this year. Junior Kate Weissend, who was apart of the field at states in 2017, missed the second half of the season due to injury, so her return will help. Freshman Sierra Kapcsos was a surprise as well, finishing in the top 25 at leagues. If all goes according to plan, Elizabethtown will remain in the mix in both the L-L League and District 3, and maybe beyond.
“That’ll be the dream of course,” Gallagher said. “Assuming we get Kate back healthy next season and someone like Sierra take it to a higher level where she can become our next Cat without putting pressure on her, my hope is that we can keep improving and that we can replace some as irreplaceable as Cat and see what happens.”