The Baldwin High School boys cross country team has learned that adversity can be a great teacher.
Coming off a double-dual meet loss to both Canon-McMillan and Chartiers Valley in a Class AAA Section 6 race last week, the Highlanders responded by winning the Vulcan Invitational with a low score of 43 points this past Saturday at Roadman Park in California.
"That was a sound drubbing," Highlanders' coach Rich Wright said of the 18-39 near-shutout loss to Canon-McMillan and the equally lopsided 23-34 loss to Chartiers Valley. "We were beaten soundly, and we didn't have any excuses."
Actually, the Highlanders might have had several excuses as two of their runners -- George Kelly and Casey Conboy -- are both recovering from concussions and Dennis Doyle was recovering from an illness when the double-dual meet was run.
All three are running again, and two of them -- Doyle and Conboy -- were key contributors in the Highlanders' victory at the California meet. Doyle placed second in the 114-runner field with a time of 17:26.41, while Conboy, a freshman, was ninth with a time of 18:07.15.
Peters Township was second with 46, and Chartiers Valley -- which had beaten the Highlanders just five days earlier -- was third with 72 points.
Conboy, who finished 68th out of 278 runners at the Red, White & Blue Classic on Sept. 7, incurred his concussion on Sept. 8 when he was waterboarding and was struck in the head with the waterboard.
Kelly sustained his injury at the Red, White & Blue meet when he fell and was kicked in the head by another runner trying to jump over him while Kelly attempted to get to his feet.
"We want to take every race and use it as a learning experience," Wright said. "When we lost to two good teams [last week] in Canon-McMillan and Chartiers Valley, we knew we'd have to step it up and show both Chartiers Valley and Peters Township that we could run with them. We did lose some confidence [in the double-dual meet loss], but we got it back on Saturday by the way the kids ran in the rain and pushed themselves."
The Highlanders continued to show improvement this week when they defeated Trinity, 16-47, and Peters Township, 28-29, in a double dual meet.
Wright is pleased with the way his team has been able to run as a group, and he credits Kelly and Mike McLaughlin, the team's top runner, with instructing the younger runners about the philosophy and strategy needed to be a good cross country runner.
"They've shown the guys what it takes, and now the boys feel they can accomplish anything," Wright said.
That includes running as a pack, something the Highlanders did quite well in both invitational races.
At the Red, White & Blue meet, the gap between the first and fifth scoring runners was 35 seconds. The gap was a bit wider at the Vulcan Invitational at 50 seconds, but that can be forgiven because of the rainy conditions.
For Baldwin to be a contender for a berth in the PIAA Class AAA championships, the gap must be a narrow one. No one knows that better than Wright.
"We did a lot of tempo work and hill work, and the rest of our runners need to be able to stay with Mike and George," he said.
Kelly hasn't quite regained the form he displayed last year, but Wright believes he'll be ready for the season's larger meets. That is when he'll be most needed as teams must be peaking when the WPIAL and PIAA championship races are contested.