Racing to the finish

Girls cross country finishes season

Hartley Hill, Copy Editor

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Michelle Tutor
Looking down, senior Olivia Manno runs through a winding course. Manno said she bonded with her teammates during overnight meets and team dinners.

At the break of day Nov. 9, the girls cross country team approached the start line of the FHSAA 4A state championship meet with the anticipation of a back-to-back state title riding on their shoulders.  

Unfortunately, the team fell short of a potential 12th state title and placed sixth out of 32 teams, although they still considered their season successful as they became district champions and regional runner-ups. 

“I think the difference from last year to this year was that last year everything came together for us really well in the end,” senior Elizabeth Eudaly said. “This year we weren’t so lucky. We all worked really hard this year, but it just didn’t come together like it needed to in the end.” 

The team won Plant’s 11th girls cross country state championship last year with no graduating seniors on the squad. 

Things went extremely different last year because before we didn’t know each other as well and we knew who the competition would be at state,” senior Olivia Manno said. “We didn’t know that we had a chance to win state until districts happened last year. For this year’s state, we weren’t sure what to expect because the competition got harder and our team had some downfalls that we didn’t expect to happen. 

As more teams were added into the 4A classification, there was more competition this year, but another state title was still prospect for the team. At the beginning of the season, the team beat Newsome, their biggest competition, so a back-to-back championship seemed attainable. But then the girls began facing some hardships.  

“Last year we really had no injuries and no problems throughout the year,” coach Roy Harrison said. “This year was different as we lost Lily Fitzgerald for the year because of an injury, and we had a couple more injuries and medical problems that set us back.” 

Junior Lily Fitzgerald developed muscular atrophy (lost leg muscle) and a pinched nerve in her left leg. The pain was limiting her ability to run, bringing her to the tough decision to stop running for the rest of the season. 

“I didn’t want to give in and end my season early, but I knew that at the rate I was going, I wouldn’t be able to perform to the best of my ability come regionals and states,” Fitzgerald said. “I felt that giving up my spot on varsity was the right thing to do. I wanted someone else on my team to have a chance to run on varsity and potentially run at states.” 

In addition, senior Olivia Manno and junior Sarah Weber faced injuries of their own. Because of these disadvantages, Plant got bumped down to second in rankings for the remainder of the season, right behind Newsome but still in front of Chiles, Sarasota and G. Holmes Braddock. Newsome was favored to win at states, but the second through seventh places remained up in the air for any team to grab. 

“I was expecting a top three finish at state and was pretty disappointed,” Harrison said. “Not everyone ran their best at state.” 

The girls came in sixth with a score of 228 points. Sophomore Mary Ellen Eudaly led the team, placing 16th with a time of 18:54, and trailing two places behind her was sophomore Arlie Rubin (19:04). Sophomore Penny Markowski crossed the finish as the third runner with a personal record (PR) of 19:57. 

“This year’s team had a sense of family — not always focusing on the winning part of the sport but working as a whole,” sophomore Maggie Malizia said. “Going into state we knew we weren’t favored to win, but it didn’t phase us one bit. We were confident in the training we had been doing all season and trusted we would run to the best of our capabilities.” 

Malizia finished fourth for the team with a sub-20 PR. Malizia brought her time down from a 22:41 at the beginning of the season to a 19:59 at the state race. 

Elizabeth (20:15), Manno (20:23) and Weber (20:42) completed the 5k race as the fifth, sixth and seventh runners.  

“For our season to end the way it did I was not sad at all,” Manno said. “I remember crossing the finish line and believing that all my teammates and I did the best we could and there was nothing to do that would change that.” 

For seniors Elizabeth Eudaly and Olivia Manno, this was their last cross country meet. 

“As a senior, my feelings have been based off the idea of ‘lasts,’” Manno said. “I was very emotional about racing my last race because I knew in the moment that I would miss the sport of cross country so much and that this goodbye would be one of the hardest with the many to come in high school.” 

The training for states began the day after school ended in May. Since then, the girls have been running together every day under Harrison, who has been coaching the girls cross country team for 38 years and has earned 11 state championships—a record number for any girls cross country coach in Florida. 

“Coach Harrison really helps to build the team and makes us closer,” Mary Ellen said. “He builds a relationship with the team and creates super enjoyable team dynamics. In terms of training, he is always pushing us and makes sure we all reach our full capacity in workouts. He helps us to peak at the right time for states and keeps us healthy. I don’t know what our team would be like without him.” 

With his training, Mary Ellen broke the 18-minute barrier for her first time at regionals with a time of 17:52, a school record. Rubin also broke 19 minutes for her first time this season, setting a new PR of 18:37. 

“Breaking 18 minutes has been a goal of mine since the beginning of freshman year, so to finally be able to run sub-18 was really special as I was able to see my training and workouts pay off,” Mary Ellen said. “The season overall didn’t go exactly how I wanted, and I kept getting cramps so PRing and and breaking that barrier really meant a lot, and I definitely owe it all to my coaches and teammates.” 

With the top four runners on the team being sophomores, there is hope for another possible state title next year. As of right now, the girls will prepare for track season starting in February. 

“Our team has grown a lot this season due to all of our hard work,” Markowski said. “We’ve all realized that working as a team really means everything in a sport like this and that the hard work really does pay off.”