Despite having four upperclassmen among his top five runners, Quaker Valley cross country coach Dave Noyes has had freshman Zach Skolnekovich lead the defending six-time WPIAL Class AA champions in practice runs on occasion this season.
"When we do 800s, I know he's going to go hard and I want him to lead the way," Noyes said. "I don't often have freshmen leading the way."
Last week, Skolnekovich again led the way for the Quakers. But it was no practice run -- it was the Midwestern Athletic Conference cross country championships.
Skolnekovich ran a 17:12 at Brush Creek Park in Beaver County. That time not only led the Quakers, but also won the event by four seconds over second-place finisher Noah Ross of Blackhawk. It was the first invitational win of Skolnekovich's high school career.
"[Finishing first] meant a lot to me," Skolnekovich said. "It was a hard race and I ran my heart out."
Skolnekovich didn't begin to run competitively until he was in sixth grade. The sport didn't interest him when he was younger, but he started to get involved when his older sister, Rachel, exceled for the Quaker Valley girls cross country team.
Rachel Skolnekovich was part of four WPIAL championship teams at Quaker Valley, finishing a career-best third place in the WPIAL championship meet in 2012, her senior season.
"We rarely ran together, except on vacation," Zach Skolnekovich said. "But she's my inspiration for the sport."
The Quakers returned four of their top six runners from last season's WPIAL Class AA champion team, including senior Luke Kropf, the ninth-place WPIAL finisher.
But right away, Skolnekovich showed he was one of the top runners on the squad.
In the opening invitational of the season, the Red, White & Blue Classic at Schenley Park on Sept. 7, Skolnekovich finished 44th overall and third on the Quakers behind senior Rob Veltre and Kropf.
Since then, his arrow has continued pointing upward throughout the season.
"He's improved quite a bit [since the beginning of the season]," Noyes said. "He's become so much stronger since we started."
One of the keys for Skolnekovich is his ability to run hills. He said that while hills can be a hindrance to many runners, he believes it is his biggest strength.
"When I see a hill, I wouldn't say my face lights up, because running hills is still hard, but I get a little happy," he said. "On hilly courses, I do a little bit better because I work really hard on hills.
"It's a lot of other runners' weakness, so I try to make it a strength."
Skolnekovich's next big meet will be the WPIAL championship event next Thursday at Cooper's Lake Campground near Slippery Rock.
He'll have stiff competition from a host of competitors, including Knoch's Preston Carlsson and Brandon Grumski as well as from his Quaker Valley teammates.
But Noyes thinks this Quakers freshman has a chance to take the top prize.
"There will be a lot of competition, but he won't be intimidated," Noyes said. "He knows he has the ability and I expect him to have a great race. He'll challenge for the top spot."
While Skolnekovich would be ecstatic to win the individual competition, his focus is on the team.
"My main goal is to keep our team's streak of winning championships alive," he said. "We've won six straight years, so if we lose during my first year, I'm going to be pretty mad."
First Published October 17, 2013 8:00 PM