South Xtra: Carrick's 'true grit' earns a City League title

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Since the very beginning of cross country season, runners from Carrick High School had been focusing one time -- 19 minutes and 30 seconds.

Knowing very well any time below that mark would ensure members of Carrick's cross country team a chance to compete in the PIAA championships, the Raiders stayed on course and reached their goal two weeks ago.

Capturing its second consecutive boys title at the annual Pittsburgh City League cross country championships at Schenley Park on Oct. 19, Carrick had five runners qualify for the state finals. The Raiders will compete in the PIAA Class AAA boys championships on the Parkview Cross Country Course in Hershey this weekend.

"Our motto all year has been 'True Grit,'" longtime Carrick cross country coach Walt Milinski said. "Some of these kids had no idea what grit meant. As the season went on, they really lived up to that word. They worked hard to get their times to where they needed to be.

"This is a young group of kids. We don't have any seniors, so they really worked hard and pushed themselves to reach their goal."

Junior Zach Wierzchowski won his second individual City League crown this year by completing Schenley's 3.1-mile course in 17:47 and finished ahead of Perry Traditional Academy's Christian Cook (18:04). Wierzchowski's sophomore teammates, Josh Walters (18:39.59), Robert Warnock (19:00.70), Julian Jester (19:20.79) and Cody Kirk (19:29.71) all placed in the top 10 and finished with state-qualifying times.

Carrick finished the City League team finals in first place with 19 points. Obama Academy followed in second with 64 and Brashear third with 86.

"In all my years at Carrick, I've had some good individual runners but this is the best team I've had," said Milinski, who had a total of 25 male and female runners compete this fall.

Besides the five runners who qualified, sophomore Francis Skoros and junior John Haney also will travel to Hershey to fill Carrick's seven-man roster. Sophomore Olivia Nickles, who placed third in the City League girls championships, qualified to compete individually at the state finals.

"Our goal always is to get to the state championships," Milinski said. "Zach qualified last year and he's the only one with experience. We know we're going up against the best runners in the state, so we know it's going to be tough.

"It's going to be a great experience for these young kids. We want them to improve their times, get that experience and hope that we can get back there again next year."

Wierzchowski ran a 19:14 in Hershey last year. He and his twin brother, Ryan, both qualified for the state finals as sophomores. Ryan Wierzchowski sustained a leg injury early this season, however, and has not been able to run for the Raiders.

"Zach has really matured as an individual and has become a more serious runner," Milinski said. "He can see that running might be in his future.

"His goal was to get his time down in the 17s [minute mark] and he was able to do that three times this year. He's consistently improved and matured both as a person and as a runner. Once his brother comes back and is healthy, Zach is going to get even better because they both push each other."

Milinski also witnessed the Wierzchowskis success last year help motivate the rest of the runners this season.

"At the end of last year, the kids heard about their experience and that pushed them more to want to win and get their times down to qualify," Milinski said. "Halfway through the season, we weren't where we wanted to be with that qualifying time. They kept working and I'm so proud of the time and effort they put in. They're seeing the rewards now.

"Running cross country is about pushing through pain. It's that true grit that got them through it."

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