Beaver Area's Marshall Bruce has had an eventful year in cross country.
Until this fall, Bruce was a part of Beaver Area's football team. Yet, cross country is the sport where Bruce has flourished.
Three weeks ago, Bruce was shimmying down a concrete-covered hill at Brady's Run Park. Bruce wasn't alone; his teammate Cameron Clerici and Laurel's Ethan Wilson were doing the same thing. The three were the front-runners during their last Section 1-AA meet (Neshannock was competing as well).
"For the first half of the race my teammate Cameron was with [Wilson and myself], but he died off," said Bruce. "I'm glad Cameron went out fast, because he'd brought Ethan out with him."
The chase went on. Rains had filled a normally dry creek so high that a plywood sheet had been placed across the course for footing. Still in the front, Bruce and Wilson began their kick with 600 meters to go.
It was no easy feat, but Bruce was the one to claim that Oct. 9 victory.
"It was a complete battle the whole race," Bruce said. "[Wilson] has a really good kick, but I was able to beat him."
With Wilson crossing the finish line second, the Bobcats came within one point of a sweep that meet. Beaver Area (11-0, 9-0) became the Section 1-AA champions, and a celebration erupted.
"It was just a blast," recalled Bruce.
Bruce beat Wilson and Freedom's Jake DeWeese in a similar showdown at the Oct. 11 Midwestern Athletic Conference Championship. But Bruce would never have arrived at all of this cross-country intensity without running his course through the football program first.
"I always like to think, 'What if I could go back and take freshman cross country instead of football?'" said Bruce. "But I probably wouldn't be as confident as I am now."
Bruce explained that the ability to contrast the two sports and make a choice was what gave him his goal to succeed in cross country.
"This year I walked up and said, 'I want to be No. 1 and I want to run with the big names,'" Bruce recalled.
Those "big names" include strong WPIAL contenders such as Wilson, DeWeese, Quaker Valley's Roy Hadfield, and others.
In 2011, Bruce actually split time between football and cross country. As a wide receiver/free safety for the Bobcats' football program, it was difficult to have enough time to train properly for cross country. The time-splitting actually put limits on Bruce's goals.
"Last year, I was mainly focused on being in the top five [for Beaver Area] and scoring for the team," Bruce explained. "I never even had it in my head that I could be up there with the big runners."
The 2011 season was actually Bruce's first for cross country. He tried it at the influence of Josef Dipietrantonio and Asa Equels, who helped get the Bobcats to states in cross country that year. Bruce knew Dipietrantonio and Equels through spring track. The three along with Jacob Weber made up Beaver Area's3,200-meter relay team. Equels and Dipietrantonio graduated last spring. Their departure was a factor in Bruce's decision to give up football.
"After last year's team was very successful and then all the seniors graduated, I thought, 'We're not going to have as strong of a [cross country] team," said Bruce. "It wasn't really a tough decision. I just decided I really wanted to do cross country instead of football."
Bruce noted that his football coaches and teammates all recognized his strengths as a cross country runner and supported his decision. The end result is that the Class AA WPIAL championship may see drama and excitement from a new performer.
The championship meet is scheduled for this afternoon at Cooper's Lake Campground near Slippery Rock.
"After the MAC meet, I have a lot of confidence about winning WPIALs," Bruce said.