By Pete Chiodo
MEADVILLE — It just didn’t make sense to pick between Saegertown’s Hunter Johnston or Maplewood’s Jeremy Parsons as The Meadville Tribune's Boys Cross Country Athlete of the Year. At two different periods of the season, they could have each been called the best small-school runner in District 10.
Johnston owned that moniker for all of the regular season. The Division I Dayton University recruit dominated every tri-meet he participated in, and he even bested Parsons on a few occasions. For example, they both raced in the Cochranton Invitational. Johnston took second (16:10, trailing Corry’s Austin Pondel, who won it in 15:47) and Parsons finished third (16:38). Johnston also beat Parsons in a Region 3 tri-meet at Maplewood, finishing first (16:19) while Parsons was second (16:49). And Johnston claimed first (16:19) at the Region 3 Invite while Parsons again finished a spot behind (16:26).
Johnston’s grip on the area’s top spot lasted all the way until the last mile or so of the District 10 Class A championship meet. It was at that point that Johnston, who had built up another significant lead over Parsons, was hit with a side cramp and couldn’t keep up the pace. Parsons and 12 other runners overtook Johnston to the finish. The Tigers’ junior was first across the line in 17:27. Johnston finished 14th in 18:04.
Would Parsons have caught Johnston if Johnston could have finished at full speed?
We’ll never know for sure. Johnston did accumulate a pretty nice lead. And judging by past performances, Parsons had a hard time tracking him down under normal circumstances.
However, we can’t write off Parsons’ D-10 title run as a fluke, especially not after what he did in the state championship meet the following week. His fifth-place time of 16:28 was one of the best performances Crawford County athletics has seen in quite awhile. And it was also six spots ahead of a now-healthy Johnston who finished in 11th place in time of 16:46 (which, let’s be clear, is still pretty fantastic).
So, Parsons peaked late. And in the sport of cross country, that’s what you aim for — to be the fastest guy (or gal) at the very end.
Now, some may ask, if Parsons is a D-10 champion and our best performer at states, why doesn’t he get athlete of the year all by himself?
Well, Johnston is a D-10 title-holder as well. He was the lead runner for the Panthers, who picked up their first team trophy in school history in this year’s Class A championship. That honor advanced Saegertown to the state meet as a team, and the Panthers went on to take third place behind champion Northeast Bradford and runner-up Elk Lake.
Granted, that had as much to do with Johnston as it did the rest of the Saegertown team. Yet, keep in mind that this was a program that had graduated a three-time D-10 champion and four-time state qualifier (Nate Tallada) the year before. The Panthers needed a leader. Johnston stepped into that role, and led the team to a title.
Therefore, both of these guys are deserving. Both of these guys are outstanding runners. And both of them are the Meadville Tribune’s Boys Cross Country Athletes of the Year.
School: Saegertown High School
Vitals: Johnston finished in first place in every region tri-meet he ran in this year. Those performances led Saegertown to a fifth straight season as an undefeated Region 3 regular season champion. He also posted some nice finishes during his team’s invitational slate, including fifth place at the McDowell Invite, sixth at Baldwin High School’s Red, White & Blue Classic, fifth in the Class A division at the PIAA Foundation Race, second at the Cochranton Invitational and first at the Region 3 Invitational. A side cramp slowed him to a 14th-place finish at the District 10 Class A championship. But he was still the top finisher for the Panthers, who grabbed the program’s first-ever district title. Johnston then bounced back the following week to take 11th place at the PIAA Championship meet in Hershey.
Season highlight: Johnston’s best time of the 2012 was the 16.01 he ran at the Red, White & Blue Classic. However, his slowest time of the year provided Saegertown with one of the most pivotal moments in the program’s history. At the District 10 championship meet, Johnston battled a painful side stitch through the last third of the race and eventually stumbled across the finish line in 14th place. Immediately he fretted about how his performance affected his team’s chances of winning its first-ever cross country title. But with Johnston able to hold off as many competitors as he could, and with the rest of the Panthers posting some nice times (such as sophomore Brendan Barclay, who was 15th, and senior Morgan Schenberg, who was 16th), the Panthers took the title, and only just, beating second-place West Middlesex by a point.
What the coach says: About the regular season: “He won all the local ones. He mowed them down, every region race. He did really dominate, other than winning the District 10 championship.”
About being a leader: “The thing I liked about Hunter is he’s an extremely smart kid. He likes to see how good he is versus other people. ... This year he stepped into that leadership role for us and brought a lot of kids along with him. I think they’re a pretty good group of kids and I think they’ll follow right in Hunter’s footsteps.” — Bill Hetrick, Saegertown head cross country coach.
School: Maplewood High School
Vitals: During the regular season, Jeremy Parsons was the top finisher in all but one Region 3 tri-meet, helping the Tiger boys finish with a record of 7-1. He also had some quality appearances on the invitational circuit, taking first place in the White division at the season-opening Big Red Invitational, claiming fourth at the Sharpsville Invite, third at Cochranton and second at the Region 3 Invite. But Parsons saved his best for last. He became Maplewood High’s first cross country District 10 champion when he won this year’s Class A race (improving on last season’s second-place finish). Then he followed it up with one of Crawford County’s best-ever performances at the PIAA championship meet, finishing fifth in Class A in 16:28.
Season highlight: That would obviously go to Parsons’ postseason efforts. The District 10 Class A championship was a thriller, with Parsons overtaking a cramp-stricken Hunter Johnston in the last mile to win Maplewood’s first D-10 individual title, finishing the Buhl Park course in 17:27. (Note that Parsons’ brother, Jake, came in second in 17:37.) He then put together a fantastic race at this year’s PIAA Class A championship at Hershey’s Parkview Cross Country Course, coming across the line fifth in 16:28. That was the best time by a Crawford County runner since 2006 — the first year the state championships were held at Parkview — when Meadville’s Zac Ross finished 20th in Class AAA in 15:59.
What the coach says: About the state meet: “He had an awesome race. It was probably the best finish a PENNCREST runner has ever had, to come in fifth in a pretty strong field. He would have been fourth in the double-A race. ... He’s a talented, tough kid. That’s what we talked about before that race. There was nobody in that race with which he couldn’t run. And he did that. He went out with the front pack and ran most of them down during the last mile. It was an incredible performance. At the state cross country meet, you are racing with a couple hundred of the best runners in state. And to be fifth best is a big deal.” — Dave Washousky, Maplewood head cross country coach.