McKenzie Lathrom, Kelsey Kendall, Maddy Ford and Katie Neff seek the Lady Tigers fourth straight trip to the Class 2 state championships in the 4x800 relay.
There is a common sight on gravel country roads in Ralls County.
It’s the four members of the Mark Twain girls 4x800 meter relay team running together, focused on continuing the school’s tradition of advancing to the state meet in the track and field distance event.
Junior McKenzie Lathrom, sophomore Kelsey Kendall and seniors Maddy Ford and Katie Neff seek the Lady Tigers fourth straight trip to the state championships in the relay when they compete Saturday at the Class 2 sectional in Hillsboro.
The quartet raced to second place with a time of 10:57.75 during the Class 2 District 2 meet last weekend at Monroe City to keep its season alive.
Their success is not by accident.
Each of the girls on the relay squad will compete in multiple events at the sectional, displaying their athleticism and work ethic. Yet they view how they fare together as more important than any individual result.
"They push each other, encourage each other and believe in each other, and this is what makes them such a powerful relay team," Mark Twain girls coach Erin Mack said. "Their success comes from the bond they have formed and that keeps them running strong together."
Ford, who is committed to run at Columbia College, has been part of the Lady Tigers 4x800 relay the longest of the four, starting as a freshman when she was part of a group that finished 11th in the state.
The three-sport athlete, who also runs cross country and plays basketball, has helped the Mark Twain relay team make it back to state every year since and wants nothing more than for that to happen again.
"It’s super exciting because that’s something we try to do every year and that I’ve done every year since my freshman year," Ford said of the 4x800 relay reaching this weekend's sectional. "I hope even after we’re gone we still do that as a team. It’s really exciting to have the opportunity to go to sectionals and possibly go to state again this year."
Joining Ford on the mission is Neff, who has enjoyed a standout prep career in her own right. In 2015, the pair teamed with Lathrom and Quincy University basketball commit Kaelee Ogle to finish 10th at the state meet.
Neff, who will join the Culver-Stockton cross country program this year, faced adversity this season when she was sidelined for two weeks in April due to a strained sartorius muscle. With persistent rehab, she mended just in time for the meets that matter most.
"It was very important to me," Neff said of making her return in time for the Eastern Missouri Conference meet. "This team is my family. It’s my home away from home. I don’t know what I’m going to do without them when I graduate and leave. I’m just thanking the Lord I have another opportunity to run with the girls."
Lathrom, who is the school's all-time leading scorer in girls basketball, has been a key member of the relay the past three years. While the junior knows there is more talent in the program that will keep the relay successful during her senior season, she believes this year's squad has the ingredients for a special finish.
A big reason for the relay's success is coach Mack, Lathrom said.
"Coach Mack pushes us everyday in practice," the junior said. "Without her pushing us everyday, I don’t know if we would be there every year. I think we’ll do good at sectionals and hopefully go on to state."
Kendall burst onto the high school scene last year and entered the mix for the Lady Tigers 4x800 toward the end of her freshman season. Last May, she joined Ford, Neff and Lathrom to place 11th at state.
The now-sophomore again rounds out the 4x800 squad this year, providing an infusion of youth and lacking no confidence in her teammates.
"It’s pretty exciting," Kendall said of being part of the group. "It’s really good experience. We all make sure we push each other to do our best and to get our best times. It’s really good experience to be in it, especially as a sophomore."
Ford is impressed with what Kendall has brought to the table this season.
"Kelsey was a really good runner and she had a lot of potential," Ford said of her first impression of Kendall last year. "Being able to see her grow from last year to this year is really awesome."
The foursome on this year's Lady Tigers relay will have a busy Saturday.
On top of the 4x800, Ford will also compete at the upcoming sectional in the mile race after being named district champion with a time of 5:51.60. Kendall will run the 800 meters after setting a personal record of 2:47.87 for fourth place at districts, while Neff advanced in the 3,200 meters with a fourth-place district finish of 14:33.85.
For the second year in a row, Lathrom earned district titles in the triple jump (34-00.00) and long jump (16-05.75) to qualify for sectionals in both events.
"The talent speaks for itself," Mack said. "Just looking at the fact that they are going in multiple events, not just the 4x800 team. This is a very talented group of girls. They work hard."
It's because of their versatility and maturity that Mack gives her relay runners lots of freedom. That includes what order they'll run in during the 4x800 on Saturday.
"I let them gauge their competition and decide who they think they need to run against," Mack said. "I let them do it. It’s worked the last three years, so you don’t fix what’s not broken."
More than anything else, the Lady Tigers relay team believes it succeeds because they view each other as family.
"We’re a really good family," Ford said. "We’ve ran together for so long. Me and Katie have been running together since before junior high, so we’re just really close. We can push each other and know what each other’s weaknesses are and we can help each other at practice and when we’re running, we know which order we need to be in. It just helps knowing each other that close."
"We’ve grown together as a family and we just know what we need to do as a team to get us where we need to be," Neff echoed.
Mack said the group has earned every accolade that has come its way.
"They’ve put in the time, and I don’t want anybody to take anything away from them because they have earned every time they’ve gone and every advancement they make," Mack said. "I sound like a broken record, but they are competitive. They never let up until the race is over. It’s all the way to the finish with them."
There remains just one more obstacle in the relay team's way before reaching the state competition. Going into this weekend's sectional, their collective goal remains as lofty as ever.
"It would be awesome to stand up on the podium at state and have everyone there just see Mark Twain, little bitty 'ole Mark Twain, as the 4x800 team," Neff said. "Don’t get me wrong, I hope to go in the two-mile, but my main focus is the 4x800. I really want to move on with these girls and focus on what’s next."