HERSHEY Hughesville's Hannah Merrifield leaned against a cold metal bicycle rack near the watering station outside the finish line at the PIAA Cross Country Championships and collected her breath and thoughts. Her four-year chase was over.
Merrifield had just won her first PIAA cross country medal by finishing 22nd in the girls Class A race on Saturday morning and the reality off it all was slowing setting in for her.
"This means everything" said Merrifield. "My goal has been to always medal at states and I guess all the hard work finally paid off."
The Hughesville senior finished in 20:36 and was one of 25 finishers to earn a medal.
The climb into medal contention has been a steady one for Merrifield. She has improved each year at the PIAA Championships and cracked the top 50 last year, placing 47th in 20:49 Thirteen seconds faster this year put her in the Top 25.
"This was shocking," said Merrifield, who placed 85th as a sophomore and 132nd as a freshman. "It's so surreal because it's something you can't prepare yourself for."
Merrifield may not have been prepared for the emotions of the end result, but she spent the entire season putting herself in position to reach her goal of a state medal. Every hill workout reminded Merrifield of the grueling hills on the PIAA course in Hershey. Training runs in Sullivan County, which included running up a portion of a power line, had her ready for any terrain and while the hills yesterday may have broke some runners, Merrifield remained strong during the toughest portions of the course.
"The hill at Sullivan County is probably one of the most important hills during our training in preparing us for states," said Merrifield, who will take a few days off before preparing for the indoor track season. "It's just another killer hill that prepares us for all of these."
Merrifield was one of five District 4 runners to medal in the Class A race. Troy's Casey Norton finished third, Wyalusing's Erika Huffman eighth, Towanda's Destiny Foster ninth and Northeast Bradford's Lydia Werner 12th. Norton crossed the line in 19:43.
"It just goes to show that District 4 has always been overlooked and it's a great district with a lot of great girls," said Merrifield. "We just proved District 4 to be pretty tough."
Elk County Catholic's Kennedy Weisner proved too tough for the entire field. She finished in 18:29, over a minute faster than the second-place finisher.
Wellsboro, the District 4 Class A team champion, placed 11th with 266 points. Jada Jackson was the Green Hornets' top runner, placing 51st. Elk Lake won the Class A team title with 66 points.
District 4 had two girls place in the Top 25 in the Class AA race Shikellamy freshman Treicy Cedeno (14th) and Danville freshman Mackenzie Jones (17th).