By RYAN HERMAN
KERNERSVILLE –– East Lincoln’s girls cross country team saved its best race for last, and it turned out to be the best in the state.
The Mustangs placed five in the top 29 spots, including a fifth-place finish by freshman Frances Massey as they captured their first NCHSAA state title in school history Saturday with a team score of 70 in the state 2A girls championship race at Beeson Park.
Massey, East Lincoln’s young but proven star, held close to a 9-second lead on the rest of the field at the 1-mile mark of the 5-kilometer course. She also set a personal record for the mile, hitting the mark at 5 minutes, 20 seconds. But Massey didn’t stay there, and that’s where her teammates came into play.
Maggie Foley finished 14th, sisters Megan and Madison Rowles crossed at 20th and 21st, respectively, and Elizabeth Sisk rounded out its qualifying field in the tightest race of the day.
Four-time defending champion Carrboro finished third, although tied with Newport Croatan, with a 73. The tie-breaker in cross country goes to the sixth-place runner, which gave second place to Croatan.
Carrboro was the favorite going in, ranked first among 2A girls teams. But its reign is over.
That distinction now belongs to the Mustangs, who averaged a season-best time of 19:58 on Saturday.
“It’s just unbelievable,” coach Melvin Morrison said. “In June they started coming to practice every day, and every day I told them, I said, ‘Believe. If you keep working hard, and buy into my system, and keep working hard, then great things will happen.’”
Massey, who hadn’t finished lower than second all season, finished in 18:35.37 –– more than one-half minute behind individual title-winner Maysa Araba of Carrboro. With such a fast start, Massey said she tired coming down the final mile of the race.
But her teammates were there to back her up.
Two and one-half minutes separated Araba from Sisk, but in cross country how you finish isn’t as important as where you finish.
Carrboro placed three in the top 22 and Croatan placed four in the top 24, but Sisk’s 29th-place finish gave her 23 points and were the difference between a banner day and one that ended with a “better luck next year.”
“I’m really excited. I did not expect that to happen. I knew we were going to be in the top three, but I didn’t expect to win,” Massey said. “This is such a good team and (my teammates) are so great and they just worked so hard this year to help us win state.”
East Lincoln’s lone senior, Tori Horne, finished 81st in the 128-runner field, but that didn’t matter to her.
Saturday was about the team, and that’s how you get it done in cross country.
“This is the best I could ask for to finish out my senior year. These girls are awesome and they mean more to me than anything and I couldn’t imagine a better team. They’re awesome,” said Horne, who also walked away with the 2A girls Sportsmanship Award.
“I have to give a lot of credit to our coaches. They’re awesome. They’ve pushed us farther than we ever thought we could go. It’s just been an awesome season. And Frances, our new runner, she’s pushing all of us to push our standards higher.”
With Horne the only one graduating from the seven-member team –– and it’s top runner only a freshman –– East Lincoln could become the next Carrboro, with multiple state championships.
The Mustangs are going to enjoy their first, but preparation for the next one begins soon.
Shelbee Knopf finished 56th for East Lincoln, which is also coached by Jill Farar.
“They’re staying hungry, and that’s the big thing,” Morrison said. “If you keep a team hungry, great, great things can happen, and they’re believing.”