The Central Bucks South boys' track team had lost too much. Five top runners had graduated and gone on to run in college, including three-time 800-meter state champion Tom Mallon.
No one expected much from the Titans, a team that shared second place at the PIAA Class AAA championship meet last year. It was a rebuilding year. There wouldn't be too many highlights.
It turns out South coach Jason Gable was stashing some pretty solid runners in his reserves. Actually, that's an understatement. South, the last of 18 teams to qualify for the boys' Distance Medley Relay Championship of America, shocked the field Friday, running a school-record 10 minutes, 15.46 seconds for second place overall at the Penn Relays.
The Titans could have won it, too. Senior Austin Gregor, running the anchor 1,600-meter leg, was in first place after the third turn of the final lap, but succumbed to Mike Mazzaccaro of Christian Brothers (Lincroft, N.J.) on the final stretch. Brothers won the race in 10:13.04.
"Our coach, he keeps telling us we're always the underdog, no one expects us [to win] because our top stars left," Gregor said. "He's like, 'It's your turn to shine.' "
Gregor ran his mile split in 4.18.77. Joseph Waddington led off with a 3:07.53 1,200-meter run, Ryan Hynes ran his 400 in 51.12, and Ryan Dickson turned in a 1:58.06 800.
"Training has been intensive these past few weeks," Hynes said. "Our coach is always telling us we're an underrated team. We just wanted to come out and show everyone what we were capable of. And I think this definitely made a mark for us."
Great Valley (10:32.06) placed 12th; Council Rock North (10:38.76), 15th; West Chester Henderson (10:40.69), 16th; and Boyertown (10:55.42), 18th.
Elsewhere, the Strath Haven girls' 4x800 team capped a torrid two days, but not without some drama.
Moments before the biggest race of the year, the Panthers came dangerously close to missing the start call for the event's Championship of America.
A day removed from the team's running the third-best time in qualifiers - and clocking Pennsylvania's top girls' mark of the season and shattering the school record by 12 seconds - coach Bill Coren didn't want Allie Wilson, Val Wilson, Katie Balmer, and Hannah Grossman waiting in the queue too long before the race. He wanted them to stay loose, not stew.
Just barely making it to the start as the last team to take its position, the Panthers placed fourth, running a time of 9:05.34 - a miniscule .02 second off the bronze-medal pace.
Grossman, running the anchor leg, was in third until the final several meters, when Amoya Bailey of Holmwood Tech (Jamaica) passed her at the finish line for a time of 9:05.32.
"I wish I'd known she was literally right at the line," said Grossman, a junior. "I feel like I could have pushed it, but I just didn't have time to react."
It belies the point. Health was an issue in the weeks leading up (illness for Grossman and a sore leg for Allie Wilson). The team was nervous and conceded to having low expectations. But over the past two days, the relay team reaffirmed its elite status, after taking fifth in the event at indoor nationals in March.
The Panthers never fell below fourth place throughout the race and held third after two of the four legs.
They ran the second-best time of all U.S. teams at the Relays.
"Oh my God. I'm blown away," senior Val Wilson said. ". . . This is such a huge accomplishment, and I couldn't ask for anything more."
Edwin Allen (Jamaica) took first, trouncing the field with a time, 8:39.22, that is the second best in Penn Relays history. The mark also was better than the U.S. national record of 9:43.12 set in 2008 by Roosevelt (Greenbelt, Md.). Long Beach Poly (California) took silver in 8:59.72.
Henderson (9:16.79), Central Bucks West (9:20.16), and Notre Dame Academy (9:24.22) finished eighth, 10th, and 11th, respectively.
Contact Evan Burgos at email@example.com.