Adversity has been a common theme for the Charleston girl’s cross country team this season.
The Trojans lost their two All-Apollo runners in Megan Garrett and Grace Spoonhour to graduation. Then, junior Ila Richter, who was an official state qualifier, lost her track season and summer running season due to recovering from surgery. Throw in the fact that IESA state qualifier Hadley Webb was recovering from surgery as well, the Trojans were hurting, literally.
“Going into the season we weren’t even thinking about sectionals being unattainable,” said junior Whitley Wood.
Essentially, the Trojans were missing their expected top two runners who were state worthy runners a year ago. This year, both finished in the top five, but have not been 100% this season. With both out the first meet of the season, it vaulted Wood to the top.
Wood was the team’s No. 6 runner last year where her personal best was 22:46. This year, Wood has consistently run in the 21-minute mark with a personal best of 20:15 at Decatur.
“I could probably name everyone on the team for standing out for us at some point this season,” said head coach Chris Hawk. “Whitley Wood has taken one of the biggest leaps from last year’s #6 runner to our #1 runner in every meet she ran in this year.”
Wood said that given the team’s state in August, nobody knew who the top runner was going to be. Once she finished first at the first race of the season, that started a trend of constantly being the top girl. That led to regionals where Wood paced Charleston with a 20th overall finish.
“Going into the season we didn’t know who would be in the top spot so it was really interesting to see where everyone finished in the first races of the season,” said Wood. “We had a few girls dealing with injuries and healing from past injuries. When I finished first for my team at the first race of the season I was shocked but excited, and then I was even more excited when I finished first again at the next meet. I knew that I would need to push hard for my team to make up for the others dealing with injuries. I enjoyed leading my team this year and I hope to do it again next year.”
Richter was expected to take over as the team’s No. 1 runner. However, a skiing accident last winter resulted in a torn ACL and surgery. Richter missed most of the summer running to prepare. She was held to biking and low-impact injuries up until August, where she was able to run every other day.
She was able to make it back for the start of the season, where she ran a time of 22:39, which was almost a minute and a half slower than what she ran her sophomore year. However, Richter remained resilient and fought to get her season’s best time down to 21:26.3. That also included nearly placing top-30 at the Regional as the team’s No. 3 runner.
“Coming off of my injury, I was unsure of how the season would go,” said Richter. “I was hoping to be able to run, but I didn’t have high expectations. To keep me in the right mental mindset I just kept reminding myself that recovering was the most important thing and I loved being able to cheer my team on in the meantime. I couldn’t have done it without God helping me through every step.”
Webb was another runner that was thought to have high expectations. As an eighth grader, Webb won the Class 3A Sectional, but due to an injury, Webb’s first race this season wasn’t until September 22 at the Mattoon Cross Invite. Webb finished as the team’s fifth runner at the Regional, where she ran a personal best 22:37.1.
“We knew that we would struggle early on with both Ila and Hadley having knee surgery in the offseason and Casey still battling back from some medical issues that took her out of running nearly all of last year,” said Hawk. “Not to mention the fact that we lost two of the best runners in the area to graduation (Megan Garrett and Grace Spoonhour). Still, I had high hopes that we would see the rest of the team work hard and put us in a position to make a late season push if we could get everyone healthy. While we are still far from 100%, we have had enough to get us through to Sectionals again this year.”
Even though the team was a little banged up, it was the first time all year that it felt like the team was peaking at the right time.
“We were a little nervous because we knew Ila and Hadley were still healing from their knee injuries and I myself also had a slight issue with my knee, but we all pushed hard and accomplished what we needed,” said Wood. “We knew that pretty much every girl on the team would need to have a good race at regionals in order to make it and I think we achieved that goal.”
This is the ninth consecutive season that the girls cross country team has qualified for the Sectional. Charleston did it in dramatic fashion too, beating out seventh-place finisher Rantoul by just six points.
“Making it to sectionals means a lot for our team, especially with us being so close to the cut-off,” said Richter. “We were six points from not making it so we were all super happy when we made it. I think our goal right now is just to go out and try our best. We are making the most of what will probably be the last race for our three seniors.”
Charleston’s overall goal is making the state championships as a team, but Hawk knows that goal is likely out of reach given where the team is. With that said, the team will lose just three seniors in Lilly Long, Casey Fisher, and Sophia Kattenbraker, so the future looks to be bright.
For now, Hawk is just going to enjoy the moment and hope that the team can run their best time all season at a very fast course in Decatur.
“I’m extremely proud of this team,” said Hawk. “We have had several girls push forward into varsity positions for the first time this year. We have three seniors that have put their hearts into this team for all four years of high school and a great group of juniors and freshmen that look to be strong again next year. I love how much these girls enjoy each other and how much of a family they have built within our team.”