The Pine-Richland boys cross country team is gunning for the Section 3-AAA championship, but the Rams' cross country story has been a lot like a roller-coaster.
Flash back to last year.
The boys had just finished preseason camp when No. 1 runner Tommy Reinhart had his right second toe severed in a work-related accident. Reinhart had been working his summer job as a lifeguard when the accident occurred. As Reinhart jumped into the pool that day, he caught his toe in a drainage grate. It took surgeons to re-attach the toe.
"I saw my [toe] bone, and realized I wouldn't be able to run all season," recalled Reinhart. "It was the day before school started and we had already had our first cross country invitational."
The Rams had just taken second place at the California University Invitational, and Reinhart's stark realization was one of the hardest things he had ever encountered.
The Rams got through most of the season without Reinhart. It was difficult, but Pine-Richland still achieved a 7-1 record in competitive Section 3-AAA, finishing as section runner-up.
"Being runner-up in the section last year was pretty big for us," said Pine-Richland coach Charles Connolly.
The Rams had gone 5-3 in 2010 and 2-5 in 2009.
"This is my eighth year of coaching," said Connolly. "For the first five, we always had a losing record."
At the end of Pine-Richland's 2011 section season, Reinhart had won his own battle. Through some tireless but difficult rehab, he was able to work his way back well enough that he competed in the WPIAL championship meet.
On Oct. 20, 2011, Reinhart rejoined his team in the Tri-State Invitational. He ran an 18:33 at the difficult 5,000-meter Cooper's Lake Campground course near Slippery Rock.
Reinhart finished the 2011 cross country season with his team at the WPIAL championships. The team placed seventh of 49 Class AAA teams, and Reinhart's time was 19:02.
"Derek Zynn and Elijah Stedeford helped me out and supported me during my injury," Reinhart said. "Our whole team sees them as people to look up to."
At the 2011 WPIAL championships, one more bright spot emerged. Zynn qualified for the PIAA state meet. He was the first Pine-Richland cross country runner to make it to states since 1998.
"I was happy Derek made it," said Reinhart.
This season. Pine-Richland's prospects for team success have been better than ever. With a healthy Reinhart plus the return of other key performers such as Zynn and Stedeford, the Rams have posted a 5-1 record in section competition.
The Rams have still had to deal with some injury issues -- Stedeford missed some time with a calf injury and Jared Todorowski had a concussion. But Connolly knows that the Rams' runners are capable of lofty goals.
"You'll hear a lot of coaches say the section [title] doesn't matter," said Connolly, noting that most teams point to the WPIAL championship meet. "But we do use the section contest for motivation."
For Pine-Richland, performance during the section season can only translate to the postseason.