COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Palmyra girls cross country team qualified for its first ever state appearance and just the second team appearance in program history by taking second in the district, just beating out Monroe City for second by one point.
Palmyra coach Nick Koetters was thrilled for his girls, though he would have preferred the margin be a little wider.
“It was rough. It was not enjoyable for me,” Koetters said. “Thinking about it, it could have gone any way possible.”
What put Palmyra over the edge wasn’t a top-line runner, but a commitment to pack running. Sophomore Alyssa Noland was the top Palmyra finisher in seventh place, but Laurin Sheputis was right behind in eighth, followed by Bella Perkins in 12th, Lauren Reid in 17th and Lydia Szarka in 21st. Szarka finished less than two minutes behind Noland.
“That’s kind of what we’ve stressed all year, ‘You guys have to run together and work with each other,’” Koetters said. “They’ve done a really good job about it, which is awesome.
“I told them yesterday a lot of other teams are going to have one, two or three really good girls out there, but their fourth and fifth are not as close. If we run our normal race we can give ourselves a chance.”
Reid and Szarka, two seniors and former state qualifiers, were what made the difference between Palmyra getting in as a team or not.
“(Reid) actually stopped and walked in the race because she was hurting so bad,” Koetters said. “She fell way behind and I thought we were toast, but she ended up picking it up. She said yesterday that she told herself, ‘Nope, it’s not going to end like this.’
“Those girls didn’t necessarily run their best race, but they knew what they needed to do and they did enough to move us along.”
Reid, Szarka and Noland all have experience competing at state, and Koetters is hoping that gives his squad a lift.
“The fact of being in the state meet is a completely different thing. Any state sport, you go there and it’s just completely different. You’re overwhelmed,” he said. “Having three girls who have been there before is hopefully going to be a huge advantage for us as far as calming our nerves and relaxing everybody else that runs.”
The Palmyra boys are back in the state tournament as well after a year away, with senior Casey Hathaway taking 13th in the district meet to qualify.
“He’s put in a ton of work throughout the year,” Koetters said. “It was nice to get a boy going back to state after having last year off.”
Monroe City’s girls team managed to place three in the top 10 of the district meet, but it still came up one point shy of a team qualification for a second straight season. While having three individual representatives in Emmalee Williams, Ella Hays and Lauren Smith in the meet is great, Monroe City coach Laura Mulvaney can’t help but dwell on those that didn’t get the opportunity.
“It was a hard pill to swallow,” Mulvaney said. “It was bitter sweet because you’re really excited for those girls to get the opportunity to go, and they get that chance to experience Gans Creek and compete at the next level, and then you look at the three that don’t. It’s really heartbreaking.”
That wasn’t the case for Monroe City’s boys, who made history by qualifying for state as a team in just the second year of the program’s existence. It was a similar situation to the girls race, with three Monroe City runners placing in the top 10 at districts, so Mulvaney held her breath until the team results were announced.
“We had four that actually went through individually, so that was where I thought, ‘Oh please just let us get all five through,’” Mulvaney said.
Kabott Harlan took fourth in the district meet for Monroe City in 18:09, while Logan Lucas finished in sixth and Kaleb Griffin took ninth. Jackson Wheeler just made the individual cut in 15th, and Korbyn Cheek rounded out the scoring in 23rd.
The difference between this season and last year, when the Monroe City boys failed to qualify anyone in their first district meet, has been the commitment from the runners.
“When you have the buy in, that’s where you start to see the successes that we did this year,” Mulvaney said. “Kabott has been consistently running since last cross country season. Logan Lucas had never been out for track and cross country, but he’s a senior this year I talked him into it.
“Just to see their growth has been awe-inspiring and has really given the program a lot of clout in the long run.”
Of the 10 individuals representing Monroe City on Friday in the Class 2 races, only junior Emmalee Williams has experience at the state meet after qualifying last season. In normal years, having a runner who has experienced the course is vital, but this season Mulvaney thinks it’s crucial.
“Last year we were able to get on the course before the day of the meet, but this year we can’t,” Mulvaney said. “To have that kind of experience helps. Your coach can only tell you so much, and (Williams) can tell you, ‘This is where you cut in. This is where it funnels down.’ She can give that detailed description that I can’t give.”
To be so well represented in the state meet in just the second year of the program, Mulvaney is excited both for the future of her teams and what this exposure will do for the runners and the running community.
“We haven’t really gotten a chance to broadcast our successes to anyone because of COVID in the spring,” Mulvaney said. “We weren’t able to go and talk to the younger kids about how well we’ve done or talk to any other potential runners. Just to have this opportunity to take several to state, I’m hoping that’s going to give them kind of a backing to say, ‘Hey, this is the type of success you can see in this sport.’”