By Noah Apprill-Sokol '21 and Peter James '22
It has been a rollercoaster ride for the Saint Louis U. High cross country program this fall, but at last, the 2020 cross country season has come to a close with a surprising second place finish at the 71st annual Missouri State Meet.
Last Saturday, the SLUH racers ran in Columbia, Mo. at the Gans Creek course, the second time that the State Meet has been hosted there. The race conditions were perfect, and personal records were sure to be broken. Unlike the course in Sullivan last week, this course was fast. It hardly narrowed down, keeping the race from bottlenecking, and the wide turns gave the runners ample opportunity to accelerate throughout.
In the first kilometer, everyone went out fast and hard. The top guys ran 3:03 for the first kilometer, which converts to a 15:15 5K. The SLUH pack trailed by only four seconds off of the leaders, but with the multitude of racers up front, the team was still only in seventh place.
“I think a lot of people at the start of the race freaked out and went too fast at the beginning,” said senior Daniel Hogan. “Coach Porter said to us on Thursday that we should look at this race as just another 5K, and I think we did a really good job taking this to heart. We ran our own race and not getting caught up in the excitement of the state meet.”
“I was not too concerned about being in seventh place at the first kilometer,” said head coach Joe Porter. “I knew that everybody went out really fast, and I am proud of the guys for keeping calm and running their own race.”
Despite the slower start, SLUH proceeded to do what they had been training for all season: move up. While many racers began to fade, the SLUH pack continued to take place through the middle mile. They were fifth at the second kilometer and fourth at the third.
“Going into the race, we knew that it would go out fast so our plan as a team was to stay calm through the first mile and then start to push it in the next two miles,” said junior Sean Kellogg. “I think as a team we had a slow start, but we moved really well through the race especially in the second mile and put ourselves in a good position.”
In the fourth kilometer, SLUH took the lead over Rockbridge by a narrow margin of two points. Unfortunately, all of the moving up had taken its toll on the SLUH contingent. Over the final kilometer they could not capitalize on the momentum of the second and third kilometers, and the team had to settle for second.
“We had a narrow lead at the 4K, and I thought that we might pull out the first place finish when I saw the results,” said Porter. “They were gaining places up to this point, and I thought that it might continue through the last kilometer. But, all moves will eventually have a toll, and for us, it was in the final kilometer. They still ran an incredible race, and I am very excited for them.”
For many, the second place result came as a surprise. SLUH graduated five of the top seven last year and only two of this year’s state racers had run at the State Meet previously. According to MO milesplit, SLUH was not predicted to get second, and according to the virtual meet, they were expected to finish between third and fifth.
“We weren’t projected to finish first or second going into the race so there was no reason to not to take risks as a team,” said Kellogg. “I think we raced very smart that day and did an amazing job of running with each other and pushing each other, especially in the second half of the race, leading to a great day for all of us.”
Impressively, SLUH managed to take second despite having no runners in the top 26 spots of the race. Instead, they relied on teamwork, closing their one to five gap to just 15 seconds, its smallest gap of the season.
“We were definitely the topic among conversations for Missouri coaches after the race yesterday. It is rare for a team to win in the top three in state without having a runner in the top 25,” said Porter. “I don’t think that during my time coaching that this has ever happened.”
Junior Grant Brawley led the charge in the 27th spot, and was followed by senior Ryan Kramer (29th), junior Baker Pashea (42nd), senior Hayden Zenor (45th), junior Sean Kellogg (46th), junior Justin Glass (57th), and senior John Hogan (60th). SLUH captured second place with 125 points, falling behind the state champion Rock Bridge High School who had a score of 109 points. SLUH was ahead of the third place team Liberty High School by only 11 points.
“We could not have imagined being that close to winning at the beginning of the season, and I couldn’t be more proud of my teammates,” said Pashea. “At every point of the race, there was another SLUH guy near me pushing me to go faster. The amount of progress our varsity team was able to make this year is incredible.”
This second place victory is not the first for SLUH cross country. It is part of a long history of successes at the state meet. Since 1999, SLUH has finished runner-up six times and has finished first five times. This year’s second place finish marks the third consecutive time the SLUH has finished second, a streak that was started in 2018.
“I think it shows the depth of our program and the key values of what we are all about,” said Reed Milnor, ’18, who was part of the second place team in 2018. “We are a team program and we have a tradition that continues and never graduates. I am just so excited for the guys, the coaches, and for all the XC guys. It is great to see from afar the tradition continuing.”
Despite SLUH’s long program history of success, for Porter, this second place finish is quite special.
“Each year is unique, and this year was very different,” said Porter. “There are teams where you have superstars or teams where you have tight packs. This team really came together well with dealing with a pandemic and uncertainty. I think that this makes this second place victory particularly special.”
In the end, even though only seven students ran for SLUH, the second place finish represents the entire cross country program.
“I think that it is important to think about when looking at this second place performance is that it is not just a success for the top seven on the line or even the top ten that got to travel to state,” said Porter. “It is a victory for all 84 of our cross country runners. We are a program, not a team. This is a program victory, not a team victory.”