The Midlothian High School cross country teams competed in the state cross country championship for the first time in 14 years over the weekend.
Their season began in August at the Kennedale Wildcat Run at the MLK Jr. Sports Complex in Arlington, where the varsity girls finished sixth in a division full of 6A competitors. The season continued through to the James Smith Invitational in a crowded field of 67 teams and 1,831 runners, where the varsity boys and girls finished first.
They both then advanced from the District 14-5A championships — after the Lady Panthers finished first and Panthers in second — to the regional meet at the Jesse Owens Memorial Complex in Dallas.
The top four boys and girls teams in the regional meet advance to the state championships, which the Lady Panthers did by outsting Lucas Lovejoy for the final spot. The team was led by sophomore Abria Paul, who finished 8th in a stacked region, along with Abria Paul in 22nd, Avalon Mitchell in 28th and Abby Powers in 33rd.
Though the Panthers did not qualify as a team, senior Jacob McElhanon (7th) and junior Tanner Henderson (11th) did finish high enough in the boys' race to be eligible as individuals.
Seth Swick (44th) and Wesley Wright (48th) also raced well for the Panthers at the regional meet.
The Lady Panthers went on to finish 12th out of 16 teams at the 5A cross country state championships held Saturday at Old Settlers Park in Round Rock. Their 287 team points and an average time of 20:14.79 was not enough to overcome the 90 total team points and 19:04.68 average posted by state champion Frisco Wakeland.
It was the first time for the Lady Panthers program to qualify for the state championship since 2003.
Finnestad led the Lady Panthers with a 32nd-place finish in 19:34.79. The junior was followed by Abria Paul (81st, 20:12.73), Avalon Mitchell (141st, 20:18.70), Mariah Griffin (211th, 20:27.18), Cheyenne Corbitt (287th, 20:40.57). Abby Powers (20:46.20) and Autumn Tennes (21:00.84) also competed for the Lady Panthers at the state meet but did not factor into the team score.
On the boys' side, McElhanon finished 29th and Henderson finished 93rd.
“I had one junior, four sophomores and two freshmen that competed at state for the girls,” head cross country coach Joey Foster said. “It’s hard to simulate that for the first time.”
He said the biggest struggle for his runners at the meet was the headspace they were in.
“When you get in that setting, it’s hard,” he said. “It took me years as a collegiate athlete to be able to mentally simulate that in practice, and I’m talking about my junior year in college. You’re trying to tell some 14, 15-year-old kid you got to get this right now. I think nerves kind of took over.”
While all nine Midlothian athletes that qualified for the state championships expressed some disappointment in not doing better, Foster said he couldn’t be more proud of the season his teams had.
“It was surreal,” he said. “It took me off guard, and I’m a hall of famer. I was like ‘Oh my god, we’re here.' I can only imagine what’s going through those kids’ minds.
“[...] It still really hasn’t fully hit me yet. My brain is already working on how to fix what I saw at the state meet.”
Foster said he’s looking forward to further improving the team and seeing how they perform during next year’s season.
“There’s something special about this [Lady Panthers] team,” he said. “With a strong freshman class combined with the talent and leadership of our upperclassmen, the next few years of cross country and track are going to be exciting to watch at MHS.”
David Dunn, @DavidDunnInTX