First impressions may be important, but in the case of the Central Catholic High School cross country team, those results aren't always the most compelling.
After finishing 22nd in the prestigious Red, White & Blue Classic on Sept. 7 at Schenley Park, the Vikings fielded a team more suited to their reputation and took top honors this past Saturday at the Red Dragon Invitational in Bemus, N.Y.
Running against a field of 11 other teams in the Division I race, Central placed two of its runners -- Jeff Van Kooten and Kyle Zenchak -- among the top five individuals and captured the team championship with 63 points. Runner-up Lockport (N.Y.) had 92 points.
Tim McVeagh, a Central Catholic alumnus who has coached the Vikings for 30 years, said the effort is emblematic of what can be expected from his team this season.
"Jeff didn't run in the Red, White & Blue meet," McVeagh said of Van Kooten, a junior from Sewickley. "He had a short-term knee injury, but he's fine now."
He said Zenchak, a Carrick resident, ran similarly to the effort he displayed in the Red, White & Blue meet when he placed 14th with a time of 16:28.
"I think we're moving in the right direction," McVeagh said. "At the Red, White & Blue meet, we didn't have two of my top seven runners. [On Saturday], Jeff ran the way I expected him to run. We also were missing Daniel Young, who also missed the race in New York with a stress reaction in his right leg"
McVeagh said a stress reaction has symptoms similar to a stress fracture, but it's not as serious.
"We're going to test him early this week," he said. "If he remains painless, we'll let him run."
McVeagh said Zenchak is someone younger Central runners can use as an example.
"He didn't start running cross country until he was a sophomore," McVeagh said. "At his first Red, White & Blue meet, he ran 19:41, and this year he ran 16:28. I told the other boys on our team what he had done, and they just lit up.
"I had five ninth-graders who ran faster at this year's Red, White & Blue meet than Zenchak did when he was a sophomore. They know that if they work hard, they can be just as successful as Kyle."
McVeagh is confident that a solid top seven will come from a core of nine runners. He's just not sure who will be running with Van Kooten, Zenchak and Young, a sophomore from Squirrel Hill, at the end of the year. But it will come from a field that features Regent Square junior Pat Curley, Jefferson Hills junior Hugh Hassan, West Homestead freshman Mike Butler, Shadyside freshman Joe Gatti, Upper St. Clair freshman Joe Hassett and Swissvale freshman Adam Parrish.
"Butler, Parrish and Gatti already have earned varsity letters as freshmen," he said.
"We have a rule that if you are among the top seven runners or run 18:20 or better in a race, you've earned a letter. All three did that at the Red, White & Blue meet.
"Mike Butler was our third runner last weekend, and he improved by 10 seconds in one week and is now running under 18 minutes," McVeagh added.. "He could be in the low 17s by the end of the season."
Butler is the grandson of the late Jack Butler, a Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer.
Every team's goal is to run well during the season, finish in the top three at the WPIAL championship meet and compete for a state championship. As far as McVeagh is concerned, his team is chasing after the second- and third-place spots to qualify for the state meet.
"North Allegheny is unbeatable," he said. "They returned a lot of 10th- and 11th-graders, and they showed their stuff at the Red, White & Blue meet. We're not chasing them. We're just trying to get to the state meet and gain some experience."