PENNY HILL – In a showdown with multiple lead changes, Connor Nisbet of Friends outlasted Salesianum’s George Steinhoff in the first showdown between the state’s two top runners at Friday’s Joe O’Neill Invitational.
Making the Bellevue State Park course his fifth consecutive victory, Nisbet came from behind for the first time this year, opening with a torrid mile, finishing with an overpowering kick.
Hudson Pepper finished third in 15:48.7, a sore Achilles tendon behind him, becoming the first Tower Hill runner to break 16 minutes in the 5,000-meter era.
With four of the top 12 runners, and six in the top 19, Salesianum overwhelmed the field with 42 points, far ahead of defending state champions Charter (131) and Tatnall (145).
Nisbet had a slight lead after a 4:52 first mile, Steinhoff took over in the second mile, then Nisbet reclaimed the lead before Steinhoff launched a charge with 1,200 meters remaining.
“He gained a lot of space on me,” said Nisbet. “It was almost demoralizing. At 2.5 miles, he was like 20 meters ahead. Hudson was catching up for me, so my first thing was trying to run away from Hudson and trying to secure a good second place.”
Nisbet recovered. Both are gifted with a strong kick. Friday, Nisbet had more energy left.
“We really had to battle to the last 200 meters, to claim that title and get that small nose in front in the last stretch. The last 800 meters was the hardest I’ve ever run,” said Nisbet. “I knew I wasn’t going to outright win the race easily, so I had to rely on my kick.”
“I made a move with 1,200 to go,” said Steinhoff, sifting through his strategy. “That could have taken a little out of me. I was dead after that. Next time I’ll probably not make such a hard move and stick with him a little more, try to stay patient and rely on my finishing speed more.”
The duo will meet again once more, at the New Castle County meet on Nov. 5 at Winterthur.
No high-mileage workouts remain, says Steinhoff. “The biggest thing is to stay healthy. My coach says that the hay is in the barn at this point. The thing now is to stay in shape, get sleep, make sure your legs feel good, make sure you’re feeling sharp for the counties and the state.”
Senior Chris Avila was first-team All-state last year, but his ninth-grade brother Andrew is now Charter of Wilmington’s best runner, finishing fourth in 15:56, the fastest time ever run by a ninth grader at the course. Andrew had breakout performances at the Paul Short Invitational two weeks ago and the Manhattan Invitational last week, the second fastest ninth-grader in both of the multi-state fields.
“He is a phenomenal competitor, a phenomenal training partner, so much an influence on my that I wrote my common app essay on him and my relationship with him,” said Chris Avila, slowed to 21st by the effects of a 12-day-old cold. “We worked off each other at Paul Short, both getting PR’s. I’m looking forward to when all this is out of my system and we can hit the course together at conference, counties, states and regionals.”
Having attracted attention since fifth grade, Andrew Avila trained for his freshman year with uncommon savvy.
“I wanted to keep mileage as low as possible, so I worked on things like core, cross training, a lot of biking,” he said. “Over the years I’ve learned what you need to have a good season, and now its just executing and coming out here to the big races and getting competition that will push you.”
With Steinhoff backed by Michael Keehan (6th) Sean Banko (9th), Lucien Peach (12th), Austin Barry (13th) and Kyle McCarthy (19th), the Sals overwhelmed the field in the only meet all season with all the state’s schools in one race.
Bryan Delle Donne finished fifth in 15:57 to lead fourth-place Newark Charter. Tosin Ibironke of Smyrna finished seventh, the top downstate finisher. Vail Freed (10th) paced Appoquinimink. Ben Bamforth arose from a mid-race fall to finish 11th to pace fifth-place Sussex Tech.
Brendan Balthis (8th) and Joseph Cintavey (20th) paced Tatnall. Ryan Harris of Lake Forest and Alex Horgan of St. Andrew’s, both third-team all-state last year, made their bids for second-team mention, finishing 14th and 15th.
Charter’s Ben Snyder (16th), Caravel’s Jacob Puharic (17th) and Johnelle Joe of Mount Pleasant (18th) rounded out the top 20.