By Tom Robinson
With her senior season at Abington Heights High School on the horizon, Hannah Hughes had a decision to make.
After a junior year in which Hughes was a significant contributor to three district championship teams, it was time to contemplate how her years of dedication to basketball combined with the more recently developed love for competing as a runner.
Hughes decided to narrow her focus from three sports to two and put her competitive concentration, at least on the scholastic level, strictly into running.
As the former JB Hoops AAU basketball player made the trip to Shippensburg University Thursday for her final weekend as a high school athlete, Hughes was pleased with the way it had all worked out.
Hughes earned all-star honors in cross country and track on teams that were both unbeaten Lackawanna League champions in the regular season and District 2 Class 3A champions in the postseason. With more time to devote to running individually and to her teammates in the two sports, Hughes was the only athlete to serve in a captain’s role in both, as a co-captain in cross country and tri-captain in track.
“It’s really cool to be the captain this year, to just lead the team and help everybody do their best,” Hughes said. “It’s not even on a running basis, it’s on a personal basis, everybody was really close this year and we had a lot of team chemistry, which I would say is a good accomplishment.”
For Hughes, the accomplishments went beyond leadership.
In cross country, she earned a district individual silver medal. She claimed individual gold at the Robert Spagna Lackawanna Track Conference Championships in the 800-meter run and she made her way into Friday and Saturday’s Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Track and Field Championships as part of the district championship 3200-meter relay team.
It is as a member of that relay team that Hughes will conclude her high school athletic career, either in Friday’s qualifying or Saturday’s state final.
In between the two main high school running seasons – she also participated in indoor track events in the winter – Hughes made her way back to Riverfront Sports in Scranton. The courts, where she once practiced with many of the best players her age in northeastern Pennsylvania as teammates on JB Hoops, became a place to play recreational basketball with friends.
“It was actually really fun, just playing and not really having to worry about anything,” Hughes said. “I plan to do that in the future a little bit, too.”
There were times when Hughes could be found on the basketball court much more often.
Health issues that slowed her progress on the court as a freshman and sophomore combined with her emergence as one of the top area runners to lead to a decision that youth and high school athletes of many ages face at various times.
Mike Hughes, Hannah’s father had a hint which way she might be headed when he noticed that she usually ran home after basketball practice, getting in extra miles on the road, but wasn’t necessarily playing basketball after track practice.
“It was definitely more of a personal decision, but my parents knew what I was feeling, so they supported me either way,” Hughes said. “I really was toying with the idea a lot my senior year.”
When her junior season, as part of the Abington Heights District 2 Class 5A championship basketball team, ended, Hughes decided to no longer combine JB Hoops basketball with high school track in the spring. She no longer was trying to further develop her basketball game in advance of a senior year in which she would cut back from three sports to two.
The decision faced in the Hughes household is one confronted often by athletes and their parents.
When she added track, then cross country to her sports routine, Hannah did was not considering ever wanting to drop a sport.
“I didn’t really think that decision would be out there some day,” Hughes said. “I thought I would stick with all three.”
Basketball was a constant for Hughes until Labor Day of her freshman year when she first started feeling the effects of what would ultimately, months later, be diagnosed as Lyme disease.
The combination of symptoms left it unclear whether Hughes was sick or hurt. Frequent major swelling in her right knee kept her out of basketball.
When some of her AAU teammates were finding immediate playing time in varsity high school basketball, Hughes missed the start of the season. She wound up playing on the Abington Heights freshman team and missing part of the AAU season when her knee would flare up.
It was not until days before the start of her sophomore basketball season that Hughes was healthy and ready to start making up for lost time on the court. She saw limited time on a district championship team.
High school basketball may have been behind schedule for Hughes, but her decision to try track and field produced immediate results.
“I remember the first meet at Scranton Memorial Stadium,” Hughes said. “I ran one of the legs in the 4 by (400) and I ended up putting down a really good time for never having run before.
“After that, I ended up loving it and taking it a lot more seriously.”
Hughes was now a two-sport, one-season athlete in the spring.
“I did do JB Hoops that year,” Hughes said. “There were some weekends where I’d miss track practice or I had to miss JB Hoops, but I tried to manage both of them.”
Hughes was just getting started as a runner.
Although her track specialties are the middle-distance events – 400-meter dash and 800-meter run – Hughes was ready to test her endurance in the fall of her junior year. In her first season of cross country since middle school at Our Lady of Peace, Hughes finished eighth in the District 2-4 Class 3A Subregional and made it to the state meet for the first of two times.
Hughes carried that momentum into basketball season where she became a key part of a veteran team that went 19-8.
She determined, however, that it was time to walk away from the sport she started playing in second grade.
“I just really wanted to focus on running,” Hughes said. “I knew a lot of the time, basketball didn’t let me fully train, especially in the offseason when my teammates were always training.”
Two more sports seasons as a senior would leave Hughes 7-for-7 in being part of district championship teams in high school. That success factored into the decision.
“It was a blessing and a curse having such a good basketball team,” Hughes said. “We would make it so far in districts and (state) playoffs, but then I’d come in to track two or three weeks late, so I was already behind at the start.
“That was a large factor in me deciding not to play my senior year.”
The results and experience have gone about as well as Hughes could have hoped, but it has not always been easy.
Hughes finished third in the subregional – and second in the district – in cross country.
The many miles she has put in running could have contributed to the shin splints that have forced her into altered training routines this spring.
The championship track season has turned into a balancing act between training to build strength and protecting her aching legs. At times, elliptical sessions replace running on the track.
“My coach (Mike Ludka) and I always seem to be on the same page,” Hughes said.
When it’s time to race, Hughes is ready to go.
At the Spagna Championships, Hughes squeezed out one of the night’s most exciting victories, beating Western Wayne’s Annie Skirpan by 22-hundredths of a second to win in 2:22.55.
“I think a lot of her toughness comes from what she went through with Lyme disease,” her father said.
When the state championships end this weekend, Hughes, who has gotten used to a routine of Advil and ice, is looking forward to some rest. But just as she came back to basketball at Riverfront this winter, the future Temple University student will be back running the roads soon.
“I plan on running in college, not for the college team, just for my enjoyment,” she said. “I like doing 5Ks and stuff like that and I’ve always wanted to do a half marathon. When I’m really healthy again, I’ll train for that.
“Even before I went out for track, I used to go for runs and it would make me feel good afterward.”