Maybe it was fate that juniors Matt Pettegrew and Jared Swartz arrived at Columbia High School when they did.
After all, before they got there, Columbia didn’t even have a cross country team, having dropped the sport from 2013-15 due to a failed school levy and low numbers. But the program restarted in 2015 at the middle school level when Pettegrew and Swartz just happened to be eighth-graders. The varsity program followed the following year when they were freshmen.
Now, Pettegrew and Swartz have the Raiders in the Division III regionals Saturday at Boardman High School.
Columbia finished fourth at last Saturday’s district meet in Medina to snag the final qualifying spot with 103 points. Gilmour, ranked ninth in the state, was first with 36, followed by No. 15 Mapleton (80) and Elyria Catholic (96).
Last year, Columbia was fifth at the Medina district with 158, right behind Elyria Catholic (107), which grabbed the last spot. Columbia was sixth at districts two years ago.
“Last year we were close so we were excited to make it this year,” said Pettegrew, a three-time regional qualifier. “We’re excited about how we’re doing with our progress. We all know that we have to step up and run even better than this past week in order to move forward to make it to state.”
Pettegrew understands what it takes to compete at the regional level. He was 18th last year in 17:10.75 at Boardman as an individual. He faded from contention in the last mile as he missed the 16th and final state-qualifying berth by 10.48 seconds. As a freshman, he was 47th.
“I’m excited for the team as well as myself,” said Pettegrew, this year’s Patriot Athletic Conference champion. “I want to perform better than I have the last two years. The team gives me something extra to run for, running for our team and everyone else. I don’t want to let them down. We all want to do our best. We all come together as a team, work together for it. It’s pretty cool.”
Columbia will need to be at the top of its game if it hopes to earn one of the four state-qualifying berths. In addition to Gilmour and Mapleton, fifth-ranked East Canton and No. 6 McDonald are also in the field. East Canton (67), McDonald (89) and Gilmour (119) were first, second and fourth at last year’s regional to advance to state. Mapleton (128) was sixth.
“We came into (the district) thinking we were going to be able do it,” Swartz said. “That kind of mindset really helped us, but we know we can do better overall.
“Our training is set so that we peak at the end of the season so we’re all focused on postseason. Last year we just missed so that really motivated us.”
In a regional preview Sept. 15, Columbia was eighth out of 41 Division III boys teams at the Boardman Spartan invite with a score of 322. Gilmour (77), McDonald (92) and East Canton (103) took the top spots with Mapleton (209) finishing fifth.
“We all definitely need to go out fast,” Swartz said. “Last week at districts I didn’t go out nearly as fast. I probably could have gotten a few more kids. This week for regionals I’m going to focus more on getting out quick and see how much pain I can take throughout the whole thing. See how fast I can really go.”
At the Medina district, Pettegrew was fourth (17:04.50) and Swartz 17th (17:43.80).
This year’s success didn’t just happen for Columbia though. In addition to Pettegrew and Swartz, the Raiders brought back juniors Kevin and Brian Barta from a year ago. Josh Morlock, another junior, and sophomore Scott Saksa and freshman Dante Cirigliano are new to varsity. Brian Barta (20th, 18:12.70), Saksa (28th, 18:40.60) and Cirigliano (43rd, 19:08.50) rounded out the Raiders’ top five at districts.
Numbers for the Raiders boys program are good. The team has 13 members, up from 10 last year and five in 2016.
“We’re very excited we made it this far being it’s the first time we got a team to regionals on the boys side,” said third-year coach Adam Bailey. “It’s pretty cool, but we don’t want to be just satisfied with that. We want to push to try to make it for state. We know it’s going to be tough. Three teams (East Canton, McDonald and Gilmour) are pretty much solidified in going. The fourth spot is pretty much up for grabs between ourselves, Mapleton, Maplewood, Rootstown and Elyria Catholic.
“It helps having some front-runners in Matt and Jared. It gives us a shot. The back of our pack continues to move up.”