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For 20 years, Wilson keeps CC program at high level

Mirror file photos / photo illustration by Nick Anna Randy Wilson has coached the Central Cambria girls cross country team to five state titles.

Randy Wilson wasn’t even five years into his now 20-year tenure as Central Cambria’s high school cross country coach when he encouraged the younger sister of one of his athletes to join the team for a run.

The girl didn’t really want to at first. She had dreamed of being a track star after impressing teachers in gym class with a 6-minute mile in fifth grade. She even wrote about it in her journals. But she just couldn’t wrap her head around how much running went into cross country.

That’s when her competitive juices took over. She wanted to be able to do what her older brother did, and if he was able to run it, so could she.

With that, Carly Seymour joined the school’s cross country team and set into motion what has become nearly two decades of dominance in the sport of girls distance running.

Learning to love it

Seymour eventually went on to run cross country at Duke University after winning a pair of individual state championships at Central Cambria and several more in track. She even held the 3,200-meter record at the PIAA meet for more than a decade before it was broken by Brownsville’s Gionna Quarzo last year.

But her success didn’t come instantly, and it took the right fit to make everything click. That’s where Wilson worked his magic.

“When you are on a team with Randy, he kind of transforms your whole view of running,” Seymour said. “It suddenly goes from something not fun to something super fun and exciting. He makes you passionate about it.”

Wilson doesn’t just preach passion, he lives it. The 52-year old, who also serves as the school’s athletic director and girls track coach, said he looks forward to his daily run just as much today as he did when he first laced up his sneakers as a child.

“Our kids really enjoy the grind of practices,” Wilson said. “They enjoy running hard with their teammates, and every coach I have had runs with them. Now, I can’t run as fast as them, but we run. When I say we’re doing 10 hills, the four coaches or five coaches, whatever we have that day, are doing 10 hills too. It’s a good buy-in with the athletes.”

Wilson has another job at Central Cambria that isn’t directly related to sports, but he’s used it to help get the most out of his athletes over the years.

“I’m a guidance counselor too, so I have that side of my mentality on what to look at,” Wilson said. “I think that’s the greatest thing about running — unlocking someone’s potential. It happens so often, because everyone gets the chance to compete every time.

“In basketball, if you’re at the end of the bench, how much potential are you really unlocking if you don’t get in the game? It’s not the fault of the coaches. It’s just the way the game is set up. With us, everyone toes that line. At the end of the day, some of the biggest cheers might be for someone in the back, because they just had the best race they have ever had. That builds family and camaraderie.”

Seymour’s potential was still raw as a freshman. She qualified for the PIAA meet as an individual but admitted to not being in the best shape to reach her peak. Part of the problem was not seeing much competition around the area that pushed her limits.

That was about to change. Seymour finished 58th in her first PIAA meet and finished nearly two minutes behind champion and fellow freshman Rachel Erny of Brentwood.

“I have never experienced anything like it, even in college,” Seymour said. “Starting my freshman year, where I wasn’t buying into the whole experience, I went to states and saw all these girls who were breaking records. I decided that I wanted to be like those girls.”

Suddenly, Seymour felt pushed and her competitive fire was lit once again. Things were about to change at Central Cambria.

“With distance running, it’s hard to train if there’s not somebody that’s pushing you,” Wilson said. “We’re fortunate enough that after Carly reached her potential, we’ve always had someone pushing everyone to make them work that much harder.”

Breaking through

With an inspired Seymour back for her sophomore year, Wilson got to work developing not only Carly’s chances of improving her individual performance at the PIAA meet but using her talent to push her own teammates the way the competitors at the state meet had pushed Seymour the year before.

“We have some natural benefits here,” Wilson said. “Ebensburg is a naturally hilly town. Every time we leave campus, we run a big hill. Every time we run around town, we run a big hill. We have the Ghost Town Trail, and we’ve been blessed with great assistant coaches throughout the years. We have great administration from the superintendent to the principal, they are all very supportive and appreciate the work we do.”

As Seymour and her teammates improved together, some other very talented runners emerged and everything began to come together.

“From my sophomore year on, Randy and I kind of fed off each other knowing I had big goals,” Seymour said. “As my sister (Kelsey) joined the team, Annie Cekada and my other sister (Kendall) joined, we kept putting those high goals in everyone’s head. We didn’t know anything else. That’s what we were always chasing after. We had to have nothing less than the best.”

Before long, it was clear that not only was Seymour a threat to win the state championship, Central Cambria was on the verge of something special as a team.

“I got to run with Carly for three years, and it really helped having someone to look up to,” Cekada said. “There were so many people that I ran with that improved over the four years. It wasn’t just our lead pack that benefited. When we finished, if there were still runners behind us, we’d run back to encourage them. The last runner is just as important as the first runner, and that concept really helped people thrive on our team that maybe wouldn’t have as much on another team.”

Seymour capped her sophomore season with her first individual PIAA cross country title. She finished 22 seconds ahead of Erny, who inspired Seymour after beating her by nearly two minutes just a year before.

Cekada wasn’t far behind with an 38th-place finish, and Central Cambria finished sixth in the state as a team.

Going for it all

In Seymour’s junior year, Central Cambria continued to make strides as a team.

Cekada continued to develop, and Carly’s sister Kelsey became an important part of the squad as a freshman.

The Lady Devils improved their team finish at states to third, but Carly Seymour came up two seconds short of her second straight individual title when Neshannock’s Kacey Gibson edged her out. Cekada turned in a top-25 finish, and Kelsey Seymour finished 56th in her first performance at the PIAA level.

Still, as his star runner entered her senior cross country season, Wilson said her focus was centered on the team, not regaining her individual title.

“It’s always about the team,” Wilson said. “For example, in track, I have had girls say they didn’t care about individual events because they were worried about the relays. I have had girls qualify for individual events multiple times, and they don’t even do them because they want to focus on the relays. That’s a culture that started here way back when, that we’re about the team.”

Seymour said it was always easy to see the bigger picture.

“Running can be such an individual sport,” Seymour said. “But Randy had such a way of building each of our individual strengths and focusing on us as a whole. My senior year, when we were going after that state title, I was not only doing it for myself, but I was doing it for all those girls, who at that point had become my best friends.”

With Seymour, Cekada, Kelsey Seymour and a talented freshman class that included Carly’s other sister Kendall, Emily Wright and Ashley Stump, Central Cambria looked poised to reach the goals Wilson and Carly Seymour had set during her sophomore year.

“We parlayed one special, special runner into everyone jumping on board,” Wilson said. “I don’t get excited about going to states with a runner. I want to go to states with a team. That’s one thing we really preach. Kids are willing to put in the time, no matter the conditions, they are putting in the miles for each other. That’s what has kept it going.”

At the PIAA meet, everything came together.

Carly Seymour avenged her individual setback to Gibson by beating the Neshannock star by 40 seconds and finishing in 17:49. Cekada and Kelsey Seymour each finished in the top 25, and Kendall Seymour, Wright and Stump all finished in the top 80 to earn the Lady Devils a state championship in dominating fashion.

“These athletes have given me the opportunity to have the greatest experience I could ever have hoped for,” Wilson said. “You could have a million dollars or you could win a gold medal. I would say they could keep their million dollars, because you can’t buy a gold medal. No matter how much money you have in the world, you can’t buy that. You can say you don’t want to take that experience away from the kids, but I don’t want to take that experience away from me. Getting to work with these student athletes and reaching these levels has been a blessing. If I die on my run today, I’ll die the happiest person ever. I have had so much joy.”

Keeping it going

Many schools enjoy a run of success in certain sports when a special group of athletes pass through, but Wilson has managed to maintain it at Central Cambria for nearly 20 years.

A lot of that has to do with Wilson valuing every runner and every finish no matter how young the athlete.

“He would invite the middle schoolers to certain practices,” Carly Seymour said. “They would go on runs with us, and you could see the development of talent. That was exciting for us to see, even if I wasn’t going to be part of it. It’s exciting to see not only that you can make a different right now as part of the team, but that you’re making a difference for future generations.”

Even though Seymour was off to Duke, the runners left behind that benefited from her pushing them did the same for the next group behind Wilson’s guidance.

“He pours his whole heart and soul into it,” Cekada said. “Instead of just being a coach, he encourages his athletes to love the sport as much as he does. I know athletes he’s worked with that have since graduated and have families of their own and have kids that are starting to run. It sticks with you into your adulthood, the love of the sport and the bond we formed as a team.”

Behind top-20 finishes from Kelsey Seymour and Cekada, Central Cambria won its second-straight PIAA title in 2008.

New stars emerge

Central Cambria won its third state championship in 2009 with the help of breakout star freshman Alyssa Brandis who developed running alongside senior Kelsey Seymour. Before long, it was Brandis that younger Central Cambria runners were being pushed by.

“The Seymours were who everyone looked up to,” Brandis said. “I always felt like I had to work harder and live up to them when they left. Then when I stepped into the roles they had been in, it felt really good to be a leader and have someone look up to me.”

Brandis finished her career with a runner-up finish at the 2012 PIAA cross country championships, but even after her graduation, her presence was felt by those who ran with her and those who ran with her teammates from that season.

“I looked up to Alyssa Brandis, Jordan Hayward, Jackie Bracken and my sister,” 2019 Central Cambria graduate Paige Wess said. “Even though the Seymour girls were gone by the time I started to run, I looked up to them, too. It’s really important to have someone like that to look up to, because you realize that you could be in their position someday if you work hard. Seeing them be able to do that really helps motivate everyone.”

Hayward and Paige’s sister, Emma, played key roles along with Sydney Gilkey, Samantha Koss and Carly Kaschalk as Central Cambria once again returned to the top of the podium with a state title in 2014.

The Lady Devils won Wilson’s fifth state championship in 2018 behind Paige Wess and another star freshman learning from seniors pushing her, Stella Kuntz.

“It means a lot to me that I went to a school and live in a community that’s known for that kind of success,” Wess said. “I’m happy to be a part of something that was so successful and looked up to from people at other schools.”

More than a decade after she helped the school win its first cross country state championship, Carly Seymour was thrilled with the Lady Devils’ continued success.

“It brings me so much joy,” Seymour said. “I know it made such a difference in my life. My high school years were the absolute best years of my life. With how much joy it brought to me, it makes me so happy to know the athletes now are experiencing the same joy, because that’s something that is rare having that level of success.”

Past stars like Brandis revel in the fact the program has become part of their family.

“My little sister is now starting cross country,” Brandis said. “It’s great to see the program is still how it was so that when she gets older, she can be part of it.”

Wilson credits plenty of things to Central Cambria’s success. He cites recovery, sleep, eating right and the tremendous competition the Lady Devils have had over the years locally as contributing factors.

But it certainly helps that the girl he invited to a cross country practice nearly 20 years ago didn’t follow her first instinct and decided to give it a try.

“We won district championships before Carly got here on both the boys and girls side, but I think what Carly did was have the attitude of, ‘why not us?'” Wilson said. “Why not Central Cambria? Why can’t we win state championships? It wasn’t about her. It was about wanting to win a team state title, and that changed this program.”

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