WORCESTER — There was no way Kara Steinke, who has never lost a league meet in her entire high school career, was going to let the last Pioneer Athletic Conference cross country race slip away.
Despite a bad stomach ache and a tough time breathing, the Methacton senior closed out in style Thursday, as the three-time defending champ made it four straight titles by capturing the PAC-10 girls cross country championship with a 19:23, Thursday, on the 3.2-mile Heebner Park course.
In the boys race, highly favored Spring-Ford junior Paul Power, who had not lost a dual meet all season, was just as determined to overcome his odds.
Running with just one shoe for all but about 200 yards, Power captured his first PAC-10 cross country tile with a 16:30.
Somebody stepped on Power's foot just 200 yards into the race, and with his right sneaker coming off, he flipped it up and carried it the rest of the way on the nasty gravel, sticks and stones along the course. He had to tightly hold on to that sneaker because the embedded chip automatically records the winner and winning time.
The two individuals may have come in as prohibitive favorites, but the team titles were up for grabs, especially on the boys side.
The Owen J. Roberts girls made it two straight PAC-10 titles, finishing with 39 points, to hold off Perkiomen Valley (56), Boyertown (62) and Methacton (99).
The boys were another story, with three teams — defending champion Pottsgrove, Methacton and Spring-Ford all coming in with 8-1 records.
And after chasing Pottsgrove the past two years and always just falling short, the Methacton boys captured their first PAC-10 cross country team title with 39 points, finally getting the better of Pottsgrove, which took second (64) and Boyertown (81). Spring-Ford was fourth (108).
In the girls race, there was more intrigue behind the favored Steinke. For four years the question has been, who would take second behind her. Last year it was Boyertown's Emily Schumaker, who was again solid here, running second nearly the entire race. That was right down to the last three or so yards, when Spring-Ford's Sam Christman suddenly kicked it up and sprinted right past her, with Christman taking second (19:36) and Schumaker third (19:38).
With Christman and Schumaker both juniors, and Steinke graduating, it should be interesting next season.
On the boys side, Power will be back. But he will face some challenge from the league's newest rising star — Methacton sophomore Jeff Kirshenbaum — who took second right behind Power with a 16:34. Boyertown junior Dylan Eddinger, who took third (16:39) to cap his first cross country season, also looks to be also in the mix.
The only other PAC-10 runner to win the title all four years prior to Steinke was former Perkiomen Valley standout Becky Bullard (1996-1999). Steinke served notice in her first PAC-10 title race, back then at Daniel Boone Homestead, setting a freshman record and course record in 2010 with a 17:56. The course record still stands.
Last year the championships races moved to Heebner Park, where they are likely to stay. And where Steinke said her final goodbye now.
"One one my goals was to be undefeated through all four years and I'm happy, even with the struggle I faced today,' Steinke said. "From when the gun went off, I just didn't feel good, had a real hard time breathing. I do have exercise-induced asthma and really bad allergies. I didn't think it was going to be as bad as it was. Obviously, then it just starts going through my whole body and there's not enough oxygen to supports your legs running. My legs started to cramp and I felt really faintish. Coming through the two-mile mark, I knew, something is not right with my body.'
But Steinke won anyway.
"I'm so happy,' she said. "But I really still don't feel good. I feel like dust. But I am really, really happy. Definitely sentimental. The whole season has been bittersweet. But I'm going on to new things.'
And Steinke still has districts and states to go.
"And I'm looking forward to that,' she said. "Hopefully this meet I was able to get out the funk. I still have a bullet inside of me,' she added with finally a big smile. "And it does give me confidence to know that the way I felt today, I was still able to pull through.'
As for Power, he was happy to win, but his team not winning took some of the pleasure away. And the pain in his shoeless foot and body didn't go away for quite some time. It took him more than half an hour to slowly walk around with the help of a trainer and his father before finally feeling well enough to talk.
"I'm excited I won, I tried to do the best I could for my team. It didn't work out,' Power said. "We were going for the team title today and we're disappointed that we didn't get it. There's always next year. I know winning is what I had to do and I did my part.'
As for the shoe situation...
"My teammate got pushed into me and my shoe started to come off, so I had to flip it up to myself because it was the shoe with the chip in it and I had to carry it for the rest of the race,' Power said. "The gravel hurt a lot. Today I also had to eat lunch earlier because the race was earlier, so I didn't have great digestion of my food, didn't feel that great. That and the pain in my foot the rest of the race ... but I gutted it out.'
With Power gutting it out, Kirshenbaum kept inching closer and closer, and he knew he might have a chance. But Power hung tough those last few yards. Still, for Kirshenbaum to move up from 27th last year as a freshman to second in this tough field was quite a feat.
"I'm just so happy with coming in second,' Kirshenbaum said. "I definitely made a big improvement (from last year). I feel great. Power is a great runner, I knew he's going to do really well at states. I would have liked to win, but as a sophomore it feels great to come in second.
"The last half mile, all I wanted to do was walk. But I kept thinking, I really want to win, the team really wants to win. We did win! Oh, man, that's awesome!'
And one reason Boyertown also slipped ahead of Spring-Ford was the emergence of Eddinger, previously devoted to ice hockey. He shot right up to third here.
"Third my first year, it felt pretty good,' Eddinger said. "I was expecting to go after the Methacton kid and beat him. But he was good, had a good kick in the end. Still, I am very pleased, with the team overall and myself.'
The "Methacton kid,' Kirshenbaum, played the key role in that team win.
"It was a great race,' said Warriors boys coach Steve Savitz. "They ran like they did in practice. One entire group, and they finished exactly where they should. Great effort. I was happy for our seniors because they've been chasing Pottsgrove for four years. They were vindicated today, they felt good. Our seniors took Kirshenbaum under their wing this summer, and it helped him grow into the runner he has become.'
There was no girls team win for Christman's Rams. But that did not take away from her being thrilled to cross second only to Steinke, and to overtake Schumaker on those last few yards, moving up from seventh last year.
"I don't really know what pushed me at the end, I just knew I wanted to go for the second place, knew I wanted that. I'm really happy. Definitely the best race of my season so far.'
The finish was a bit of a bummer for Schumaker, but she never lets herself get down too much.
"I did not expect that at all,' Schumaker said about Christman's pass over the last three or so yards. "It's so hard to hear here, you don't hear anyone who is behind you. I thought I had a pretty good lead. But ... not really happy with my finish, but I know I raced hard so that's what I'm happy with. Even so I wasn't second again.'
Owen J. Roberts veteran girls coach David Michael has been at this for more than three decades, and know the ups and down of this sport. He had to wait years for his girls to win the title again. Now it's two straight.
"That's what happens when you have great kids,' Michael said. "They trained hard together. The end of that race looked like some of our training runs. They love to run together and work together. I call it a great team race because they really did run well as a team together. The showed it here last year and again this year. This group can really finish a race.'
For perennial boys power Pottsgrove, it was a tough loss.
"We wanted to win,' said veteran Pottsgrove coach Larry Rechtin. "And, obviously, hats off to Methacton. They have an excellent team, excellent depth, they had all their pistons fired today and they beat us and beat us solidly.
"We've got to bounce back because we've got a really big race next week. Districts are going to critical for us because only one team makes it out of our district. and that's going to be a tough one for us.'
The Pottsgrove boys are the defending District 1-AA champion and also the reigning PIAA-AA champion. They will have to pick themselves up right away and concentrate on next week.
OJR's Ethan Conway won the boys junior varsity race, while Perkiomen Valley Hannah Styolpa won the girls junior varsity race.