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Mars cross country team makes strides at PIAA race | TribLIVE.com
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Mars cross country team makes strides at PIAA race

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Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Mars senior co-captain Brendan Knox runs in the 2014 WPIAL Class AA boys cross country championship race at Cooper's Lake.
PTRMarssports01110914
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Mars junior Nathan Mrdjenovich approaches the finish line during the 2014 WPIAL Class AA boys cross country championship race at Cooper's Lake.

The Mars boys cross country team just missed a chance to advance to the PIAA cross country championship race last season when the Fightin’ Planets finished fourth at the WPIAL Class AA meet.

This year, though, Mars punched its ticket to Hershey with a third-place finish at the WPIAL championship meet.

Knoch won the title with 104 points, South Fayette was second at 139 and the Planets had 167 points.

“The good thing is, last year, I think on paper we had a better team and finished fourth. With a little bit less experience this year, we finished a place higher,” Mars coach Larry Young said. “That makes the accomplishment a little extra special. I was very pleased.”

Junior Nathan Mrdjenovich led Mars with a sixth-place finish in 17 minutes, 22 seconds. Senior Ben Luce (25th, 17:54), junior Jacob Porter (32nd, 17:58), senior Brendan Knox (49th, 18:27), sophomore Evan Deddo (55th, 18:33), senior Zach Hunkele (60th, 18:39) and junior Lukas Johansson (65th, 18:43) were next.

“We didn’t run well at the WPIAL meet. We really didn’t. We should not have finished behind South Fayette,” Young said. “If we ran well, I think we would have been close to Knoch. We wouldn’t have beaten them, but we would have been closer.”

At the PIAA championship meet in Hershey, the Planets finished ninth with 243 points.

However, they finished second among WPIAL teams. Knoch was fourth with 170 points. South Fayette was just behind Mars in 10th with 258 points.

“We kind of hoped for a little higher finish than that. When you go to a meet, it’s not very often everything goes well, though,” Young said. “Going into the meet, we thought it would really be cool to challenge the two teams that beat us at the WPIAL meet.

“If we beat one or both, it was a job well done. As well as Knoch ran at the state meet, even on our best day we probably wouldn’t have beaten them anyway. They just had a little more firepower than us. We had a good season.”

Mrdjenovich (17:21) was 24th at the state meet and Knox (17:22) was right behind in 25th. Porter (54th, 17:49), Luce (60th, 17:56), Hunkele (80th, 18:21), Deddo (92nd, 18:32) and freshman Caleb Keys (104th, 18:52) were next.

“We have three very good eighth- graders this year who might make a contribution as early as next year,” Young said. “The future looks good.”

Mars’ girls team had high expectations after winning the WPIAL Class AA title last year. However, enrollment figures bumped the girls up to Class AAA for this season and next. The Planets struggled with the change.

Mars, which returned all of its top runners, finished 14th at the WPIAL meet this year.

“Last year, when we got the news in December, we talked about it. We appeared to accept it for what it was. During the course of the season, the fire and enthusiasm just wasn’t there, though,” Young said. “We talked about it several times. The way we performed at the WPIAL meet showed we never did accept it. If they hadn’t won a championship last year, it probably wouldn’t have been as much of a blow to them. I feel confident we would have won it again this year.”

Senior Sydney Cole placed 43rd in 21:05 for the Planets. Sophomore Emma Gentile (73rd, 21:55), senior Shannon McChesney (82nd, 22:01), sophomore Natalie Petrini (96th, 22:14), junior Lauren Jaeger (97th, 22:14), junior Liz Smialek (99th, 22:15) and sophomore Lindsey Brand (104th, 22:19) were next. No Mars female runner advanced to the PIAA meet.

“The girls were so high last year and then got hit with (the news they were moving to Class AAA). That was a factor in them lacking some luster this year,” Young said. “We have to get to the bottom of that; we’ll be in the same place next year, so we have to deal with it for another year. We have to have some serious talks and accept it and move on starting now.

“That’s a project and we’ll deal with it. We’re going to lay down the plan for the next 12 months soon. It takes a special kid and group of kids to make things like this happen. They do it and love it. They’re just great kids to coach.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer.

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