Mechanicsburg senior Olivia Walter rounded the final turn of her home course at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Park Tuesday afternoon and, with no other runners in front of her, stared at the electronic clock at the finish line about 80 yards away.
It was approaching 19 minutes, a barrier Walter had never broken.
“That really pulled me, seeing that,” Walter said. “I knew It was going to hurt no matter what, the finishing stretch. So, I thought I might as well make it count.”
Walter raced to the finish line, to a personal-record time of 18:58.8, and to a performance that paced Mechanicsburg to a tri-meet sweep against Mid-Penn Keystone foes Lower Dauphin (17-38) and Cedar Cliff (15-48).
Earlier, Carter Paul won the boys’ race at 17:25.1, leading the Wildcats’ one-two-three finish in a 21-36 win over Lower Dauphin and a 15-50 win over Cedar Cliff.
“We are moving in the right direction,” said Mechanicsburg coach Brian Hager. “We’re hoping that every week we can just take a little bit more off, get a little bit faster and a little bit stronger.”
Walter had not set a personal record during her junior season, which saw her place 14th at the Mid-Penn Championships and 22nd at districts. She ran her previous best time, 19:09.60, at the 2019 Paul Short Run at Lehigh.
“She’s going to know now that there’s still even more in the tank,” Hager said of Walter. “It’s a huge confidence booster.”
The Wildcats (2-1 conference, 2-1 overall) took control of the team race when Hope McKenney (19:34.0) and Raihana Yameogo (20:47.6) followed their teammate to the finish line for second and third place. After Taylor Atkinson finished fourth (22:10.3) for Lower Dauphin (2-2, 2-2), Mechanicsburg freshman Mackenzie Reinert (fifth, 22:21.0) and Leah Snyder (sixth, 22:30.9) rounded out the Wildcats’ scoring.
Freshman Emelia Warden led the Colts (0-2) with a ninth-place finish at 23:14.3.
“Having such fast and encouraging girls to train with and race with,” McKenney said, “it really makes such a difference. It’s inspiring, and it’s really motivating to be around people who always want to work hard.”
McKenney started cross training late, taking a few weeks to rest after her spring track season extended into summer and a 5,000-meter race July 3 at Oregon’s Hayward Field during the National Scholastic Athletic Foundation’s national meet.
“The energy of the stadium is indescribable,” she said. “It was some of the most fun I ever had.”
Tuesday gave McKenney another step forward in her cross country progression. It also gave Yameogo a chance to build back her physical strength – she suffered an injury over the summer – as well as a chance to refine her mental approach.
“I wanted to focus on running my race,” the senior said, “and smiling more. Every time there was somebody taking a picture, I was like, ‘Oh, this is fun. Just smile.’ And I just kept telling myself I was strong, so I could feel strong and mimic that later in the season.”
The trio of seniors surged to the front of the pack early in Tuesday’s race.
“My coach really wanted us to work this week on holding back a little bit in the first mile,” Walter said, “so we’d have more energy later in the race. It didn’t really work out super well for me. I get really excited at the beginning of races, so I went out a little hard.”
If Walter tore through the first mile too fast, Paul felt frustrated with his first-mile split in the boys’ race, about 25 seconds behind his goal of a 5:30 pace.
“I was a little mad at myself that I was so far off the first mile,” the junior said, “so I kind of took it out on the course.”
Qualifying for districts in cross country and track as a sophomore, Paul raced ahead of the pack and earned his second individual victory in as many weeks for the Wildcats (2-1, 2-1).
“I’m still trying to get better,” Paul said. “My times haven’t even been close to what I was able to run, but I’ll see what I can do at the first invite.”
Like the girls, the Mechanicsburg boys took the top three places, as Cohen Manges (17:42.4) and Jordan Wiedman (17:53.2) followed Paul’s lead.
“I knew Cody was going to be pretty close behind me today,” Paul said. “So was Jordan. Once I turned around at the finish, I was super happy seeing them take two and three in the race.”
Mason English led Lower Dauphin (3-1, 3-1) with a fourth-place finish at 18:04.1. Cedar Cliff’s James Bechtel finished 13th overall (19:44.1) to lead the Colts (0-2, 0-2). The Mechanicsburg boys took seven of the top 11 places before the girls claimed five of the top six.
“It has definitely helped,” Hages said, “having both programs come along.”