It has been so long since the Cardinal Mooney High girls cross country program has reached the state championships, the school doesn’t officially have it on record.
But Sarah Gates, a theology teacher at the school, said she was on the last team to make it, in 1987. It was the third-consecutive year the team went to the state meet, Gates said.
“It was like running with family,” Gates said. “We did it for the love of it. To this day, it is great to see the same passion in our athletes at Mooney. I think that is what makes it such a special spot. To see them thrive in that environment where they care about each other, they support each other.
“They’re so young, and they don’t realize the magnitude of what they can do.”
The “they” Gates is referencing is the current girls cross country team at Mooney, the first team to reach the state meet since Gates’ 1987 team. They will race at 7:55 a.m. at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee on Nov. 10 to finish their season. No matter how the team ends up, it’ll be gravy, coach Christi McDonald said, because for reasons both obvious (the state meet drought) and not, the Cougars never expected this.
The Cougars’ top seven runners, plus their top alternate, are freshmen and sophomores. Only freshman Hallie Monserez, the team’s top finisher at the regional meet (22:04.00), ran cross country before this season. The rest of the top runners joined to get in shape for other sports: Freshmen Natalie Mercadante and Madison Smithers play basketball, freshman Jenna Santiago and sophomore Avery Blechta (and Monserez) play soccer, and sophomore alternate Zoie Zanoni plays lacrosse. Sophomore Rachel Jarrett recently stopped competitive gymnastics, looking for a new challenge, and freshman Trinity Shipe joined after watching her sister, senior Tristan Shipe, run the last three years.
All seven runners said they did not expect to do this well, or even fall in love with the sport, but they have.
“All of us suffering at the same time helps bring us together,” Jarrett said, to the laughs of others.
Come together they have. The team has taken trips to Busch Gardens together, among other places, and holds weekly “pasta parties,” making this patchwork roster feel like a family, much like Gates’ 1987 team.
It’s not just the young runners contributing to that feeling, either. McDonald said the other 14 girls supported the youngsters from day one, and that the runners not going to the state meet are still running with everyone at practice (unless they have a different sport’s practice to attend), a gesture that shows the commitment McDonald has received from her runners. McDonald said she could barely field five girls runners when she started at Mooney eight years ago. Now the commitment of both her and those runners, who slowly kept the program going, is paying off.
The top runners all push each other, McDonald said, and have jockeyed for position within the team all season. At the regional meet, all seven Mooney runners finished within 40 seconds of each other, and 12 spots separated Monserez and fifth Cougars runner Santiago (22:43.52).
Monserez said she is exciting by the thought of what this season means for the future. If the team is so young and this successful, she said, think of what they will be able to accomplish a year or two in the future. Jarrett added that she thinks they’ll be “crazy awesome.”
Gates, channeling her own experience, agrees.
“You can just see their energy,” Gates said. “It’s going to be wonderful to watch them race and see how they finish. They got off the bus last week after regionals and they were so pumped and ready to go. And to watch them moving forward, I think it is going to be really exciting.”
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.