HERSHEY — Carlisle’s trajectory took a dramatic shift back in the spring.
The Thundering Herd had some talent on the roster, headlined by returning senior Isaac Kole, but a lot of youth. Coach Ed Boardman was looking ahead to 2018, trying to prepare a group of sophomores for a potential medal run when they became seniors.
But all that long-term planning got thrown out the window when it was announced New York powers Noah and Sam Affolder would be transferring for the 2016-17 school year. Suddenly, a team thinking about how to build was thinking about how to win.
The Affolders brought with them immediate star power and enough talent between the two of them to carry the Herd from a potential state qualifier to a potential state champ.
And that’s nearly how it played out Saturday at Hershey’s Parkview Cross Country Course for the PIAA Class 3A Boys Cross Country Championship.
Noah Affolder (15:33) predictably smoked the field for his first and only PIAA gold of his career. Little brother Sam Affolder (15:50) needed another 100 yards to overtake JP McCaskey's Nathan Henderson but finished respectably in third. Kole also reached the podium with a 12th-place finish.
It was a historic finish for Carlisle cross country. The team finished second with 118 points, behind only Council Rock North’s 76. It’s the best state finish for the program, topping the 1991 third-place team, Boardman said. And Noah Affolder’s gold is the first individual champion Carlisle has ever produced.
“(It’s) really something,” Boardman said.
Boardman admitted he had to recalibrate his expectations for the season back in the spring. Noah Affolder presents a special challenge, in that it’s next to impossible to have any teammate push him in practice. Affolder, after all, is a 15th-place finisher at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championship. His brother, Sam, a sophomore, is the closest on the Herd’s roster.
So Boardman got creative earlier this week. The former Shippensburg University coach flipped to an old page in his playbook and had his soon-to-be state champion chase down his teammates in a staggered order. Each of them got a certain head start on Noah, who had to run a mile. The senior didn’t catch them all, but he crossed in 4:13, a blistering pace for what is typically a tapering practice just days before states.
“To be able to do that off of what little speed work we do right now is incredibly impressive,” Boardman said.
Yet, surprisingly, the apparently uber-competitive Herd weren’t as satisfied with the outcome.
“We are disappointed definitely because we didn’t win, that was our goal eight months ago,” Noah Affolder said. “If we would’ve ran yesterday we might’ve won, if we ran tomorrow we might’ve won, but today was just not our day.”
“With these two kids, we should’ve done better,” Kole said, pointing at the Affolders. “But we got second place, that’s pretty good. I guess I’m happy with that.”
It was a rather stark difference from the jubilation expected from getting silver. Even the relatively stoic Boardman was all smiles. All three of the Herd’s top runners still had medals draped around their necks but looked visibly disheartened by the outcome.
Kole, whose senior season wasn’t expected to go this well until the Affolders arrived, wanted more. Asked how they would think of this day in five years, the two seniors still felt they’d be disappointed.
“I think when we look back on it, we’re sitting around a table one day together, ‘Oh, yeah, I think we could’ve ran a little harder,’” Noah Affolder said.
Even if Boardman was more at peace with the outcome than his star pupils, the impact of this day could pay dividends years from now. And it’s likely accelerated the process started before the Affolders arrived.
Boardman firmly believed the groundwork laid by the since-departed Zach Brehm (2015 graduate) and Matt Wisner (2016) aided in the Affolders’ decision to attend Carlisle when their father was accepted into the U.S. Army War College.
“That’s really what Zach (Brehm) did for us,” said Boardman, who added that he recently called the former state medalist to thank him. “We’ve been raising the bar here on a consistent level.”
And now that bar is raised again.
“The sophomore class (including Jack Wisner, Bryce Dunkelberger and Calebs Padgett), last year at this time we were thinking about ‘We’ve got three years to prepare your senior year we can be making a run at a state title,'" Boardman said.
“(But after the Affolders arrived) I thought, ‘Well, we should start preparing. We’ll be able to take a shot this year.’ It’s been good, I think, for them to see what it’s like.”
The brothers agreed.
“We have a solid group of sophomores, even without Sam (who is expected to leave Carlisle after this season),” Noah Affolder said. “They might even win their senior year.”
“Experience being young is probably one of the biggest and best things that can happen to them besides good training partners and a good training regimen,” Sam Affolder said. “Definitely in two years they’re gonna remember staying calm.”
That doesn’t ease the pain felt by Kole and the Affolders. Boardman will turn his attention to the track and field season once Saturday’s performance sinks in, and the Herd’s top runs will focus on the regionals and nationals in the coming weeks. But to them, Saturday was a missed opportunity.
Maybe it’ll take more than five years, but time does tend to heal wounds.