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State champion

Tamaqua's Isaac Dunkelberger won the PIAA Class AA boys' title Saturday.
/ Source: The Standard-Speaker

HERSHEY - The sweet aroma of chocolate hit the warm fall air just as the start of the PIAA State cross-country championships were about to begin. Fittingly it would be a bitter sweet day for a number of harriers, but it was surely a day to remember for one Isaac Dunkelberger, the kid from Tamaqua who finally had run to glory and finally will be recognized for his true athlete fete.

The junior runner for the Blue Raiders captured the highest honor in scholastic running a state championship gold medal, here late Saturday morning before a horde of runners hitting the finishing line in precision like manner.

Besting a field of 288 runners from 114 different schools, Dunkelberger achieved the goal he had set for himself as a freshman.

Grasping for breath even 20 minutes after he had crossed the finish line in a time of 15:54, Dunkelberger was the talk of the Class AA race after he defeated who most people thought was the field's top runner in Jake Walker of Elwood City.

"(Isaac) wasn't even being mentioned by a lot of the papers and magazines as being a threat," said Tamaqua coach Tom Kanger, grinning from ear-to-ear. "You never know what is going to happen when you come to states. Isaac had planned the race from start to finish. He knew where he wanted to be when it started; he knew where he wanted to be at the mile and he did it; he knew exactly where he wanted to be at the mile-and-a-half."

And, of course, he knew where he wanted to be at the end - F I R S T!

The conditions were ideal for Dunkelberger, who likes to run in warm weather, and he got it with balmy 70-degrees.

Dunkelberger beat back Walker, who ended up fifth in the race in a time of 16:14.

"(The leader) was far ahead of me, may be a couple of hundred yards, and I didn't know if I could catch up to him," explained Dunkelberger. "Then I just said 'the heck with it' and I started to run faster and harder."

The pain was a good hurt, he said as he kept pushing himself as the fans lining the course cheered for the last mile. When he hit the stretch run, suddenly it was a two-runner race.

And Walker, wasn't one of them. It came down to another junior, Lucas Zarzeczny of Avonworth out of District 7. Zarzeczny dressed in his school red colors and Dunkelberger donning his blue and white for Tamaqua provided a sharp contrast racing to the finish line.

"I just gave it a kick and the next thing you know I'm starting to lead," said Dunkelberger, with the thrill of winning still in his voice. "This was the toughest race for me, because of the competition and all.

"You plan so much of it, and it worked out just the way I was hoping it would work out. But you never know, when we came to the halfway point in the race, I still was feeling pretty good."

Dunkelberger said the run went nearly as perfect as he could execute. He had been beaten only once this season, and that was at the Nike Run in North Carolina and he said it wasn't a bad loss, finishing ninth in a field of runners that came from all parts of the country.

A year ago, Dunkelberger finished eighth at the PIAA meet after a 33rd place finish as a freshman.

While Zarzeczny was running a close second, Trevon Rainford, Carver E&S from District 1 hit the tape at 16:14, as did Walker, the pre-race favorite and Ben Hahn of Smethport.

"I really owe a lot to my brother (Kenny)," said Dunkelberger, who became only the third cross-country runner from Schuylkill County to win the PIAA title. "My brother took me to the (Nike) race and he has been a big inspiration for me."

Certainly, Dunkelberger has been an inspiration to his fellow teammates. The Blue Raiders would finish seventh in the overall team standings.

The team of Damian Shoff (17:28, 29th), Derrick Keich (17:25 26th), Nathaniel King (19:03, 44th), Aaron Bonner (19:48, 144th), Joey Kaban (19:16) and Matt Brode (23:29) were helping to drive the latest Pennsylvania champion.

Bishop Hafey coach Tom Kostic, who has developed one of the small school powers in the sport, knew his kids were making a debut in a race that can be overwhelming with the number of competitors.

"This is a tough place for a runner who has never been here before," said Kostic. "When you put this many runners together and that gun goes off, you kind of get intimidated. But our kids had a great time."

Kostic hopes sophomore Justin Darrow (17:45, 94th) can learn from his first trip here. Darrow was the lone boy runner for Bishop Hafey.

It wasn't a medal winning performance for the runners from Panther Valley boy's team who brought senior Dave Barachie (17:51, 107th) and freshman (18:54, 207th) Zack Lebo into this competition, but both runners ran hard.

Hazleton Area hopeful Mike Guest had one of the roughest outings of the day. The Cougar junior never finished the race and was rushed to Hershey Medical Center with pains in his chest.

Guest returned home late Saturday evening and his family said he will have more tests done to determine the problem, according to Hazleton Area head coach Lou Gunderman.

Guest, who was in 24th place near the halfway point of the race, entered the race as the District 2 runner-up was looking to finish in the top 25 in the Class AAA run. Guest had experienced breathing problems, as medical personnel rushed him into the emergency tent and from there he was placed in an ambulance and shuttled off to the hospital which was nearby.