For only the third time in school history, Port St. Joe sent a girls team to the FHSAA 1A cross country state finals, held in Tallahassee this past Saturday, November 5.
Of the 32 1A teams who qualified for the finals, only three represented public schools: Baker, Paxton, and Port St. Joe. The Tiger Sharks finished 29th overall, three places behind Baker, and three places better than Paxton.
“1A is probably the toughest classification to qualify for,” said St. Joe coach Keion McNair. “The winner, a freshman from Cambridge Christian, finished in 17:55.”
Molly Partin led the St. Joe contingent with a personal best time of 22:22, only one second better than RJ Gerlach, whose 22:23 was only two seconds from her best time. Both Partin and Gerlach are 8th graders.
Sophomore Arlena Gleichner (23:49), freshman Katie Trochessett (23:50), and junior Hannah DaCosta (24:17) completed the scoring for the Tiger Sharks.
Seventh graders Ava Petersen (25:45) and Libby White (25:52) rounded out the seven Shark runners, all of whom will be returning to compete next season.
Because all four classifications race on the same day, there were more than 2,000 boys and girls at Apalachee Regional Park. A total of 233 girls competed in the 1A finals.
“The state meet can be overwhelming with the amount of attendees and the theatrics that go along with the production,” said McNair, “like the fireworks show during the national anthem. So nerves were shaky, especially with our two seventh graders. They had never been in a part of anything quite like it before.”
For next season, McNair said that he “plans to peak the girls when it matters most, which is typically regional week. That will give them the best chance to advance to state.”
McNair’s motto, “trust the process,” seemed to work for his young charges. “Three PR’s (personal records) at regional, one PR at state, and the seventh graders PR’s at district.”
A vital part of the process is “to give each athlete their best chance to advance as far as individually possible,” he said. “It’s unrealistic to expect a young runner to PR every week, especially when they’re running on a Wednesday and then again against stiffer competition at Saturday meets.”
With such a young group of talented runners, McNair has hopes of returning to state for the next several years.
“It’s always a big deal when one of our high school teams from any sport advances to the state championship,” said McNair.
“Cross country is a less popular and (often) misunderstood sport,” he said. “Each meet, athletes run 3.1 miles on all types of terrains.”
“They get one shot each meet to run their fastest, no matter the conditions or circumstances. This season alone, our teams have run in the rain, mud, knee high grass, in windstorms, on sandy trails, and even dodged a deer on one course.”
Although runners try for their best individual time, “it has taken our entire team to get to where we are today,” he added.
“Claire Hatchell and Ella Dimitrijerich came to practice everyday, completing the same workouts as everyone else, but chose to come to meets and keep time rather than run,” he said.
“Celie White, Farrah Spring, Madelyn Shoaf, and Katie Patrick all ran in meets this season, and helped support and push their teammates to become better,” he added.
In fact, the morning of the state finals, “Claire, Celie, and Farrah woke up around 5 a.m. and made breakfast for the other girls. That shows how much respect and love they have for one another as teammates,” he said.
After coaching girls cross country for years, McNair took on the added responsibility of the boys program this season, which was “a challenge, but in a good way.”
“Over time, we all learned how to work together and learn from each other. The girls had to get used to sharing my attention with the boys, who had to get comfortable with my training methods.”
“My philosophy is to build strength and speed using alternative techniques like plyometrics, which increases endurance without loading unnecessary miles on a growing and maturing body,” he said.
“With only one senior on the boys team, we expect for them to make a postseason showing in coming years.”
“We are all better in the end from combining the two teams,” he said.