The Canon-McMillan girls' cross country team is like a kitten in the cheetah field of Section 6-AAA.
With strong section opponents such as Mt. Lebanon, Bethel Park and South Park, the Big Macs have some tough ground to cover. But, in cross country, being a small cat doesn't matter. You just have to play to your strengths.
"My girls' team is a good dual-meet team," explained Big Macs coach Mark Galley. "We have a girl up top who can keep us from getting swept."
Galley was referring to Big Macs' junior Madison Grudi, who led her team at its non-section kickoff meet on Sept. 11 against South Fayette and Washington. She ran a 21:07 on Canon-McMillan's challenging home course.
Big Macs senior Elizabeth Mansfield came in second behind Grudi that day with a time of 21:33. Overall, the Canon-McMillan girls took places 1 through 5. They knew their home course and how to run it, especially when compared to the South Fayette and Washington teams.
"The biggest thing we do is prepare our kids for what's coming at them," explained Galley.
He used last week's Section 6-AAA opener versus Chartiers Valley and Baldwin as an example.
"We ran at Chartiers Valley, which is a challenging course,'" Galley said.
"Chartiers Valley's course is so tough in the middle that you need to get a good start and stay with people before you hit the middle. You start on the track, run across a field, and get in to some hills. The middle part's pretty brutal -- you couldn't try to save yourself until the kick at the end."
Galley emphasized that the key for Canon-McMillan was basically to stay with the race's leaders, almost regardless of their race times at Chartiers Valley.
In a nutshell, Canon-McMillan is using smart course management and knowledge of its opponents as the Section 6-AAA schedule continues.
Along with Grudi and Mansfield, there are nine other girls on the Canon-McMillan cross country team. Mansfield and Natasha Kraniak were the only seniors who ran for Canon-McMillan at this past weekend's Slippery Rock Invitational.
Juniors Moriah Sivavec, Kyleigh Higle, and Gabrielle Trest also ran at Cooper's Lake Campground, site of last Saturday's meet. Sophomore Morgan Gasbarrini ran as well.
Canon-McMillan placed ninth at the Slippery Rock Invitational out of 11 teams in the girls' varsity Class AAA race.
As far as "knowing the competition" goes, it can sometimes be intimidating.
"There is no strategy if the other guy is two minutes faster than you," Galley said. "I've seen times that Mt. Lebanon was so good they just used a meet as a tempo run."
Nonetheless, Canon-McMillan is able to tell when to strike.
"Sometimes there will be only one or two really good runners and then a gap," said Galley. "So we just fill that gap."
The bottom line for the Big Macs is that they're rugged and ready. The girls went 4-3 in Section 6-AAA last year and tied for third place behind Mt. Lebanon and Bethel Park. This year, Canon-McMillan is running to grow and evolve.
"We'd like to have a winning record in the section," Galley said. "We'd also like to do well at invitationals, and to be competitive at the WPIAL level. We want to get some individuals to states."