Pitt cross country dominates long-awaited home meet


Pitt runners Brenda Ayuk, left, and Sam Shields, right, extend their lead on the second lap of the race. They would finish 2nd and 5th respectively and contribute to a Pitt team victory.

By Griffin Floyd, Staff Writer

After a long-awaited home meet — two decades in the making — Pitt’s cross country team did not disappoint.

Set in the shadow of the Carrie Blast Furnace, a remnant of the region’s once mighty steel industry, the course imparted Pittsburgh’s history on the spectators and competitors both.

“There’s nothing more Pittsburgh than a steel mill, so when [assistant coach Brad Herbster] found this course we were instantly excited,” coach Alonzo Webb said. “We always talk about having that blue-collar identity, that Pittsburgh mentality.”

The opener marked a significant step forward for Pitt’s cross country team, which hasn’t had a course to call its own in over 20 years. The Panthers have raced at nearby locations like Schenley Park, but only as visitors to Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne.

In a sport known for its backcountry races, often placed in hills and valleys, the course itself was unusual — especially for Pittsburgh’s rugged terrain. It looped around the mostly flat grounds of the blast furnace several times, each cycle about a kilometer in distance.

Having a course of their own is often an advantage for the home runners because they know its ins and outs — where to pick up the pace and where to coast. But Pitt entered the race without a distinct advantage, as the “home” course was as unfamiliar to the Panthers as it was to their opponents.

“We came into it cold, our athletes never got a chance to compete or even practice on the course,” Webb said.

Pitt still dominated the race in spite of the team’s unfamiliarity with the course — both the men’s and women’s teams won their races. Both teams took on competitors from Bucknell, Kent State and Marshall, and additionally Robert Morris in the women’s races.

In the women’s 4K race, sophomore Brenda Ayuk, a transfer from Kennesaw State, impressed in her Pitt debut with a second-place finish. Her time of 14:11.19 paced the women’s team.

Beyond Ayuk, the team took three of the top five places. Sophomore Devon Hoernlein took third and senior Sam Shields came in fifth, which was good enough for the team to win in a landslide with 28 points.

For those unfamiliar with cross country, the score is the total of a team’s first five finishes — like golf, a lower score is better. Bucknell, Pitt’s closest competition, scored 50 while Kent State, Marshall and Robert Morris rounded out the field with 56, 94 and 149 points, respectively.

“We went out a little bit harder than we should’ve, especially towards the middle of the race, and we paid for it,” Webb said. “But luckily they were tough enough to hang on.”

The men’s 6K was even more lopsided as the Panthers took the top four places and five of the top six. Senior Nick Wolk and junior Zach Lefever finished within .21 seconds of one another, fist bumping each other just before the finish line.

The team finished with 16 points, one place shy of a perfect 15-point sweep. Bucknell, Kent State and Marshall finished with 61, 66, and 77 points, respectively.

“We talk about having that pack mentality. You want to go in and stay close to each other and keep that differential between the first and seventh runner as close as possible,” Webb said. “That’s how you win races.”

Looking to the rest of the season, Ayuk and Shields will be runners to watch. Last season, Shields was the only member of the team to qualify for nationals and, as such, was forced to run there alone. With the emergence of Ayuk as another threat, the two runners could push each other to new heights, and the rest of the team along with them.

“On the freshman side, Mary Borkoski is going to find her stride and end up doing some pretty special things,” Webb added.

On the men’s team, Lefever could be poised for a breakout season after steady improvements each year, and his high finish in Friday’s meet may be the start of a potent one-two punch alongside Wolk.

In addition to the strong performances and early season hope, Webb said one of the things that impressed him the most was the amount of fans who showed up at the meet.
“It was a way bigger turnout than I thought it was going to be. It was just amazing,” he said.

The Panthers will hit the road for their next challenge this Friday at Shippensburg’s Galen Piper Invitational.