With Penn Manor High School having temporarily transitioned to remote learning last week to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the cross country team had to cancel its Oct. 13 regular season finale. As a result, the Comets hadn’t raced for two weeks coming into Tuesday’s Lancaster-Lebanon League boys cross country championship race at Ephrata Middle School.

In other words, Penn Manor runners were on fresh legs. It may have further aided the cause for Comets’ senior Graham Thomas, who was already widely considered the favorite to win the race.

Thomas lived up to those expectations. He was the first to cross the finish line, with a winning time of 16 minutes, 7 seconds, ahead of runner-up Aidan Hodge of Hempfield by 24 seconds. Thomas became the first Penn Manor boys runner to win the league race since 1980, when Dave Henry pulled off the feat.

“Winning this means a lot because there’s a lot of solid guys in this league,” Thomas said afterward. “You put yourself in good company winning here.”

Thomas purposely trailed but stayed with the lead pack for the first mile before kicking it up at mile two.

“I wanted to let them take it (at the beginning),” Thomas said. “See what they want to do for the first mile. Run my own race after that. I ran it really well.”

By the start of mile three, Thomas had considerably widened the gap.

“If you notice when he does accelerate, he gets a gap quickly,” longtime Penn Manor coach Bob Ulmer said. “One minute they’re together, and the next minute he’s 20 meters ahead, and everyone else is running for second place.”

Rounding out the top-five were Hodge (16:31), McCaskey senior Stephen Schousen (16:34), Manheim Township junior Tyler Stevens (16:37) and Cedar Crest junior Ryan Wolfe (16:41).

Hempfield had five runners in the top 20, leading the Black Knights to the team championship trophy, followed by Cedar Crest.

With the high school closed last week, Penn Manor runners were left to train on their own, adhering to workouts sent to them by Ulmer. Thomas split his time training solo at Charlestown Park in Manor Township and the Enola Low Grade Trail in Quarryville. It reminded him of the many times he had trained by himself from March through June when school was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It almost took me back to the end of track season last year,” Thomas said. “It brought back these memories of doing it all spring and summer. It was cool.”

Tuesday was a culmination of sorts for Thomas, who first gave cross country a try after being cut as a seventh-grader when trying out for the middle school soccer team. He burst onto the varsity cross country scene two years ago when, in the second race of the 2018 season, he ran stride-for-stride with Ephrata’s Andrew Foster, who was the runner-up at the 2017 league championship meet.

“What he did down there, I was in disbelief,” Ulmer recalled.

Thomas placed fifth at the league race as a sophomore and third as a junior.

Already verbally committed to Temple University, Thomas has won every race he’s competed in this season.

“God has given me great abilities,” Thomas said. “I’m also the product of everyone else’s hard work. My coaches have been pushing me. ... Friends. My youth pastor. My physical therapist. And even guys on my team and the guys in this league. ... I’m just the representation of everyone else’s hard work and dedication.”

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