Caitlin Bungo ran her first cross country meet as if she were running 1,600 meters on a track.
She would surge and then slow down a bit, surge and then slow down.
It's not a bad strategy but there is a difference between running 1,600 meters on a flat surface and 3.1 miles over the country side. One of those differences was staring Bungo in the face at the start of the girls Class AA race at the Slippery Rock Invitational Sept. 17.
"I noticed the big hill," Bungo said when asked if there was a difference between running track and cross country. "That's a little shocking and I didn't want to push it up the hill and burn out."
At the Cooper's Lake Campground course, which is the site for the WPIAL championships, the longest and steepest hill is at the start. Runners who charge up it too quickly often do not have anything left at the end of the race. Those who are slow to climb it are pushed back in the pack and often have trouble catching the leaders.
A senior at Sewickley Academy and a Mars resident, Bungo ran the hill smart and didn't do badly the rest of the race. She finished first in 20 minutes, 12 seconds, outkicking Derry Area's Hannah Scipio down the stretch.
Not bad for her first high school cross country event.
With the victory, Bungo stamped herself as one of the favorites to win the WPIAL Class AA girls individual title. She is following the same path South Fayette's Nicole Hilton took last year.
Bungo is a soccer player at Sewickley Academy and a talented runner on the school's track team. She won the 800-meter run and finished second in the 1,600 at the WPIAL Class AA championships last May, and went on to place third in the 1,600 at the PIAA meet.
She has never run cross country because of soccer, but decided to try and do both sports this fall. That's what Hilton did her senior year at South Fayette and she ended up winning the WPIAL Class AA title.
"I'm going to try and keep doing both," said Bungo, who plays outside midfield and outside defense in soccer. "[Running the race] was a new experience. I know that if I choose to go to a Division I school, [the coaches there] will want me to run cross country. So, I figured it would be nice to give it a try.
"I'm going to try [running cross country] again. It's cool. I like the whole atmosphere."
She had considered competing in the Red, White & Blue Classic at Schenley Park Sept. 10 but sprained her right ankle in a soccer match before that meet and decided to rest the injury. She ran at Slippery Rock with a brace on the ankle.
Bungo is blessed with outstanding foot speed, which is a must in the 800.
She used that speed against Scipio in the last mile at the Slippery Rock Invitational.
Bungo had the lead coming down the final hill but Scipio caught and passed her on the next to last turn. Bungo put on a surge and went past Scipio with about 800 yards left, but once again slowed and Scipio had a lead as they made the final turn for the finish line. Bungo then shot past Scipio as they neared the finish line for the victory.
"I thought if it came down to the end I'd have enough to push through it," Bungo said. "But this was my first time here and I didn't know what to expect.
"You hear the crowd and everyone and you can hear the footsteps behind you. She had an awesome finish and she pushed me, so I'm grateful to her. She's a great competitor and pushed me all the way to the finish line."
Although the Slippery Rock Invitational was her first cross country race, Bungo did run a 5K road race this past summer. She did it just to get a feel for the distance.
"It's longer than a mile," she said with a smile.
Her time was good -- Bungo would have placed second in the girls Class AAA race at Slippery Rock -- but wasn't something she was worried about.
"I didn't have a set time I wanted to run," she said. "I didn't know what to expect so I just didn't want to burn out. I wanted to have some fun and see what it is all about."
AROUND THE COURSE -- The 59th annual Central Catholic Invitational will be Saturday at Schenley Park. This year the races will be held 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. ... The Quaker Valley boys and girls won the team titles in the Blue Division at the PIAA Foundation meet in Hershey this past weekend. Nat Fox finished seventh and Roy Hadfield was 10th for the boys. Sarah McKendry was seventh for the girls.