Brianna Schwartz had always favored basketball. Distance racing was a distant second on her list of favorite sports.
Then in the fall of 2012, early in Schwartz's freshman year at Shaler High School, the unheralded runner had a life-changing race. The Red, White & Blue Invitational had many of the top cross-country runners in the WPIAL. Schwartz shocked everyone by finishing fifth.
After the race, Sam Bair, who helps coach distance runners in track and cross-country at Shaler, immediately approached Schwartz's father, Joe.
"She hadn't even trained that much," Bair said. "I told her father, 'I don't know what your thoughts are, but unless she's the LeBron James of the girls basketball world, she's in the wrong sport.' "
Schwartz no longer plays basketball, giving up the sport after her freshman year. Instead, she has run a fastbreak to already becoming one of the greatest distance runners in WPIAL history.
Last week, Schwartz ran the fastest 1,600-meter race of any WPIAL girl in any meet. Her time of 4:47.07 beat the old mark of 4:51.06, set by Baldwin's Carole Zajac in 1990.
Schwartz's 1,600 time also set a WPIAL championship meet record and she broke the meet record in the 800, too. This weekend, Schwartz will go after more history.
The PIAA track and field championships are Friday and Saturday at Shippensburg University and Schwartz is the No. 1 seed in the 1,600. No sophomore from the WPIAL has won the PIAA 1,600 in the largest classification. No Shaler girl has won a PIAA track and field championship.
In less than two years, the 5-foot-7 Schwartz has gone from a basketball player who dabbled in distance running to a 15-year-old who has already earned a spot in WPIAL lore.
Bair, 67, knows a thing or two about top distance runners. He was one himself, winning PIAA titles in the 880-yard run in 1964 and 1965 at Scottdale High (now Southmoreland). He went on to run at Kent State and was one of the top milers in the United States in the early 1970s, breaking the four-minute mile.
"No doubt about it, she is one of the best we've had in a while around here and she still has a lot of potential," said Bair.
Schwartz actually started running competitively as a seventh-grader, but only because Shaler was lacking in junior-high runners.
"I knew the coach had asked a bunch of girls to come out for cross-country, but still no one was doing it," Schwartz said. "So I said I would try it. I liked it and felt like I had pretty good endurance.
"It came pretty easily to me. But I didn't have any idea I'd be doing this well."
Schwartz decided not to run the 800 at the PIAA meet because she wanted to concentrate on the 1,600. She might run more than one race in future years.
Schwartz's 1,600 time is more than eight seconds faster than the No. 2 seed. The PIAA Class AAA 1,600 record is 4:41.08, set in 1981 by Upper Dublin's Kim Gallagher, who eventually made the U.S. Olympic team.
"My goal is to win," Schwartz said. "I feel like getting first place will involve a very fast time."
Schwartz is one of only six athletes from the WPIAL who are No. 1 seeds in individual events for the PIAA championships. In Class AAA girls, Ambridge's India McCoy is tied for the No. 1 seed in the high jump at 5-7. In Class AA girls, California's Kailyn Clancy is the top seed for the shot put (43-0) and Fort Cherry's Jenna Lucas No. 1 in the javelin (145-8).
Riverview's Tyler Murphy is the No. 1 seed for the Class AA 300 hurdles (38.89) and Woodland Hills' Isaiah Brooks the top long jumper in Class AAA (23-8).
For more on high school sports, go to "Varsity Blog" at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh. First Published May 23, 2013 4:00 AM