South Fayette's boys cross country team has had much success in its eight years as a program, including a top-seven WPIAL Class AA finish in each of the past five years.
But the Lions may have what it takes this season to make the jump to WPIAL champion for the first time.
"We have solid leadership out front this year," South Fayette coach Joe Winans said. "We've always had strong teams, but what we were missing was that guy or guys who could get out front and compete for the top spot."
Seniors Ryan Lerda and Joncarlo Patton have led the way for South Fayette most of the season. In the first meet of the season, the Red, White & Blue Classic on Sept. 7, Patton and Lerda finished 35th and 39th, respectively, among runners from all classifications.
The following week at the Slippery Rock Invitational, run on the same Cooper's Lake Campground course on which the WPIAL championships will be run today, Patton took third and Lerda finished 17th. And in the duo's most recent invitational, the Mingo Classic on Oct. 10 at Mingo Creek Park in Washington County, Patton finished second and Lerda seventh.
"Joncarlo and Ryan put in the work all season and have the ability to compete at an elite level," Winans said.
The Lions have gotten even stronger recently. Evan Zombek injured his foot in the Red, White & Blue Classic, failing to finish the race. He sat out the majority of the season, but returned to run the Mingo Classic. All he did in his first meet back was set a personal-best time of 16:48 and finish fourth in the invitational.
"He stayed committed," Winans said. "He kept up his leg strength and his cardio and came back [at the Mingo Classic] and ran a PR. It's nice to see him in great shape."
But to win the district title, the Lions will need production throughout the lineup. Luckily, depth isn't an issue for South Fayette.
With Lerda and Patton sitting out the Central Catholic Invitational, senior Patrick Brady led South Fayette to a sixth-place team finish by placing 12th. Brady also finished 10th in the Mingo Classic, while Zombek's brother, Stephen, finished 11th. Devan Sandala, Jason Cillo and Aaron Pfeil add depth.
"You have to have a strong five to win it," Winans said. "You can't have four guys show up and one fail to show. Luckily, we have seven or eight guys. Our last few guys can compete with other team's fifth runner. Those points may not count for us, but they can add points to [the other teams'] totals."
South Fayette's biggest competition for a WPIAL title will be Quaker Valley. The Quakers have to be considered the favorite after returning four of their six top runners from last season's WPIAL Class AA title team and adding talented freshman Zach Stolnekovich. The 2012 championship was Quaker Valley's sixth in a row.
The Lions finished third last season.
The two schools ran against each other this season at the Red, White & Blue Classic. When all teams were included in the final standings, South Fayette finished fourth and Quaker Valley fifth. But when only the runners from the smaller schools in the competition were counted for team scores, Quaker Valley finished second (to Grove City) and South Fayette took third.
Winans said his team has put in the work it needed this season to have a chance to win the title and won't do anything differently leading up to the district meet.
"There's nothing we can do this last week that we haven't done already," Winans said. "We'll either have enough or we won't. All the work they put in during the summer and through the meat of the season will come back and pay off now."