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Girls cross-country closes season at state championships

“I’m incredibly proud of all four girls”

by Than Acuff

When the dust settled at the regional meet two weeks ago, Titan cross-country runners Sydney Petersen and Maria O’Neal qualified for the state championships as individuals and the girls team gritted its way to a fourth-place finish to make the cut as well.

On Saturday, October 29, Petersen rose to the occasion at the state championships, placing sixth overall with O’Neal finishing in 17th and Linda Horne and Kelly Sherman throwing everything they had at their first big race of their careers, finishing in 97th and 100th.

“I’m incredibly proud of all four girls,” says coach Austin Ross. “I think they left it all out on the course.”

With four girls making the trip to the state championships, Ross used the final four days of workouts to get his runners ready for the biggest race of the season while emphasizing health, and the Titans followed the plan to the word.

“We had a good week of training with more focus than usual and they made a good effort to stay as healthy as they could, hydrating, eating and getting plenty of rest to allow them to perform at their best,” says Ross.

The state championship venue is different from all other courses during the season with a couple of unique features and a series of rolling hills with very few flat sections to recover. Given that and the typical pace of a state race, Ross tweaked the strategy for Petersen and O’Neal accordingly. While the focus all season was on running consistent splits, the state race demanded a bit more.

“At those state meets they always go out so fast at the start and I told them if they fall off the front in the first half mile, it’s really hard to claw your way back there,” explains Ross. “I told them that if they go out with the leaders, they have to stay with the leaders and it’s going to hurt.”

Petersen and O’Neal did just that, as they were hovering around 12th to 15th place at the first mile mark. Then, once the course moved into the hilly section, things started to change.

“Once the course hit the hills, they started moving up,” says Ross.

Both Petersen and O’Neal were back up into the top 10 heading into the final mile of the race and running strong. Petersen maintained her pace through the line to finish the day in sixth place.

O’Neal wasn’t so fortunate. After giving everything she had for 4,900 meters of the race, O’Neal collapsed 100 meters from the finish line. Remarkably, she managed to pick herself back up and make it to the finish line, closing out her day in 17th place before being taken to a medical tent and hooked up to an IV.

“Sydney [Petersen] had an incredible result. I don’t think anyone from here has finished that high since I’ve been coaching,” says Ross. “Maria ran 98 percent of the race as well as she could have. It wasn’t the finish she was hoping for, but she ran her heart out.”

As for Horne and Sherman, Ross reminded them that they earned their spot at the state championship and was proud of what they accomplished.

“Running in that caliber of a field is fantastic,” says Ross. “I think they kind of surprised themselves.”

The state championships mirrored the season the Titans had, up and down, and Ross believes that the year both met and exceeded his expectations.

“I don’t think there was a single kid that didn’t at least get a crack at their PR [personal record], and most of them set a new PR,” says Ross. “They learned what it took to prepare and to be ready to perform their best. We definitely had our ups and downs, but overall I think there was success for everybody.”

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