CLINTON – Pat Lovitt admittedly had his doubts about his Lady Patriots' chances of repeating as cross country champions this season.
Who can blame him? After all, MRA experienced more than its fair share of injuries and illness leading into Tuesday's Class 4A state championship meet at Choctaw Trails. So much so, that two of his projected top three runners were sidelined for weeks at a time during the regular season and both came into the pinnacle event far less than 100 percent.
"I really didn't know what to expect because of everything we had been through with injuries and health-related matters," Lovitt said. "But they ran like champions."
Champions, indeed. Not only did MRA win the title for a second straight year, it did so in dominant fashion – injuries and all. The Lady Patriots won going away, totaling 36 points, bettering second-place PCS by 11 points and third place Jackson Prep by 16. They placed four girls in the top nine, led by freshman Sloane Vinson's runner-up finish. Sophomores Laurel Fulcher, Lydia Snopek, and Everett Heard finished fourth, eighth and ninth, respectively. Meanwhile, junior Savannah McIntosh finished 13th on a bum wheel.
"I didn't see that coming, I really didn't," Lovitt said. "They totally dominated. That was the most determined performance I have ever seen. They went out and were moving. They were ready to run through a wall. This year was so much more challenging than last year just because of the circumstances."
And more rewarding. Perhaps that's why there was such an extra sense of accomplishment and pride on their faces as they were presented the championship trophy afterwards. Yes, they won again, but they won in a different way. There was also a sense of exhale in some ways because so much was expected from them from the outset.
"It was amazing," Vinson said. "Everybody was crying because we were so happy that we won it again. I went into it thinking we would do well, but I didn't really know."
Added McIntosh: "It was a big sense of relief, it was very stressful. I was glad it was over, and glad we were able to pull it off. I think by us winning, it also showed last year wasn't a fluke."
Vinson finished with a time of 19:41, bettering her previous best time by 24 seconds. Sadly, for her, it was a mere .5 seconds short of being the overall champion. She came up literally inches short of beating Jackson Prep's Julia Stradinger at the conclusion of an exhausting, grueling 3.1 mile trek.
"It breaks my heart that it turned out the way that it did for Sloane," Lovitt said. "I know how hard she worked for it, I know what her goals were from the beginning, and I know the champion that she is. I know this will only fuel her for greater things down the road."
Fulcher, meanwhile, finished with a time of 20:12, a personal best of over one minute.
"Laurel showed just how competitive she is, and when you combine that with her natural athletic ability anything is possible," Lovitt said. "That showed with her performance today. She's a state champion sprinter and hurdler, so for her to come out and run the way she did today in a 5K is remarkable."
Snopek, in his first year at MRA and 13 months removed from hip surgery, finished eighth with a time of 20:36.
"Lydia has worked extremely hard to get back into the form she was prior to her surgery," Lovitt said. "She has shown all year why she is considered one of the state's top runners."
Now to Heard and McIntosh, the highly-accomplished duo who saw their regular seasons, while not derailed, certainly short-circuited by injury and illness. McIntosh has been battling a severe calf strain for the past month and a half, an injury that sidelined her for at least three races and was extremely painful when she did compete. Heard, meanwhile, learned a month ago that she is anemic. She's had two iron infusions in the last two weeks, after failing to finish two meets and running another just for conditioning purposes.
"I didn't know how they would do, let alone finish," Lovitt said. "But, that shows why they've got over 20 something state championships between them in distance running."
Heard finished with a time of 20:54, while McIntosh posted a time of 21:16.
"I know Everett thinks that she did not run a good race and I understand why because she's a 16-time state champion in multiple events, but to me that was the most impressive performance I've seen out of her considering where her health was one month ago," Lovitt said. "As for Savannah, she showed how tough she is today because I know the last half of that race she was in extreme pain due to her leg. But she wasn't going to let anything stop her."
The Lady Patriots actually had two more scores that would've put them over the top, if they would've needed to use them had McIntosh faltered. Freshman Kate Matheson PR'd with a time of 22:09, shaving off over one minute, 30 seconds off her previous best time. In addition, senior A.K McDaniel finished with a time of 23:17, also a personal best of over one minute this year.
"Kate and A.K. both ran the best races of their careers also," Lovitt said. "They knew the level of uncertainty with a couple of our runners, and they knew they had to be there if called upon. And, man were they."
Winning the championship vaulted MRA back into the top spot in the Mississippi MileSplit rankings. They are the No. 1 ranked girls cross country team in the state – public or private. Those rankings are nice and all, and certainly newsworthy. However, Pat's Pats were focused on one thing, and one thing only, on this day.
"I told them before the race that we were the best team in the state, and that we needed to stop feeling sorry for ourselves because of the circumstances we've dealt with the past month or so," Lovitt said. "I told them we needed to go out and show people who we are, show what type of team we are - we don't leave out of here with anything less than first place. And they went out and did it. I'm so proud of them, all of them. I love this group of girls. It's a really special group."