Morgan Ansell was running smoothly and ahead of the pack in the Class AAA girls race at the Slippery Rock Invitational.
She had a comfortable lead as she cruised down the final hill on the Cooper's Lake Campground course. There were a few scattered spectators where the path flattened and one of them yelled, "We don't know who you are or where you're from, but you're doing great."
Such is the life of a freshman runner competing in a race in mid-September.
It's a good bet if Ansell, who attends Hempfield Area High School, keeps running the way she did that day, followers of cross country in Western Pennsylvania will know who she is before her senior season.
Ansell beat a respectable field of runners in winning the Class AAA race at the Slippery Rock Invitational Sept. 17. She covered the 3.1-mile course in 19 minutes and 56 seconds -- that's a 6:26 per mile pace -- and had a lot of energy left at the finish.
After crossing the line and getting a quick sip of water, Ansell went back to the finish line. She grabbed cups of water and handed them to teammates and congratulated a number of competitors. Mt. Lebanon's Jillian Hunsberger was second in 20:13.
"I just like to cheer everybody else on, too, because all of the coaches are cheering me on. I like to cheer on the rest of the competitors," she said when asked about her serving as a welcoming committee of one at the end of the race.
With the relatively easy victory, Ansell solidified herself as a challenger for the WPIAL Class AAA individual title. Defending champion Margo Malone from North Hills was not in the race and neither was Oakland Catholic's Charlotte Lampenfeld or Norwin's Autumn Greba.
Ansell didn't have much of a game plan for the race. She just wanted to get out fast and settle into a pace. It didn't take long for her to do that and she slowly started to pull away from the rest of the field.
"I was kind of shocked there wasn't anybody right up with me," she said. "I just wanted to keep opening up the gap so that if I happened to slow down or die off a little, I'd have a little bit of room on the pack.
"On the sharper turns [on the course] I'd take a look back to see where [the rest of the runners] were."
Looking back in cross country is a no-no, but in this race it didn't matter.
It was apparent after the first couple of miles that no one was either going to or wanted to challenge Ansell.
Her victory didn't surprise veteran Hempfield coach Ron Colland. He had watched her win the Gateway Invitational at Boyce Park the first weekend of the season. She finished that race in 21:04 with Norwin's Greba second in 21:10.
"I've know Morgan for the last six or seven years. She came to our track camp and we watched her run in middle school," Colland said. "I knew she would be pretty good. She has run a number of road races."
Colland has coached a lot of talented freshmen runners over the years. Chrissy Schneider and Lauren Bricker come to mind quickly and they won WPIAL championships. He wasn't about to put Ansell in their category ... yet.
"She has the strength, we just have to help her speed improve and that will come in the next couple of years," he said.
Ansell is part of a young Hempfield team that barely lost to Mt. Lebanon, 39-40, in the team competition at Slippery Rock. The other ninth graders in Hempfield's top seven in that race were Mackenzie Tressler, who finished 10th in 20:54; Meaghan Stewart and Alli Battistella.
Junior Maddie Fiaschetti was fifth in 20:34 and sophomore Brianni Gaudi was 11th in 20:58. Junior Bryanna Nalevanko was 13th in 21:01.
"We have a nice mixture of upperclassmen and quite a few freshmen," Colland said.
Ansell comes from a running family and has been racing competitively since she was 6. She ran her first 5-kilometer road race when she was 5. Her time?
"It was like 20 something," she said.
She has taken karate lessons, played baseball, did gymnastics, cheerleading and dance in the past, but gave everything up when she was in third grade to concentrate on running.
"I just want to keep going and see who is out there," she said. "Hopefully, they will help me get better and I can help them get better."
At the Red, White & Blue Classic earlier this month, Ansell finished 13th and was the second freshman to cross the line. Colland thought Ansell would do better at the Cooper's Lake course, which is the site for the WPIAL championships.
AROUND THE COURSE -- The 59th annual Central Catholic Invitational will be Saturday at Schenley Park. This year the races will take place in the afternoon because of SAT testing in the morning. The girls B race will be at 1:30 p.m. with the boys B race at 2 p.m. The girls A race is at 2:30 p.m. with the A boys race at 3 p.m. The races will begin and end near the Schenley Park oval. ... Norwin's Ryan Boccabella won the varsity boys race at the Sharpsville Invitational this past weekend in 16:49. The Norwin boys were second to Erie Cathedral Prep, 46-90, in the team scoring. In the girls race, Norwin's Autumn Greba and Jenn Kuhn finished fourth and fifth, respectively. The Norwin girls edged Erie McDowell, 98-104, in the team scoring.