For the sixth year in a row, the St. Joseph’s Academy cross country team is the Class 5A state champion. With its five scoring runners in the top 16 places, the Redstickers scored 55 points to finish ahead of Ruston (66), Dominican (89) and Mount Carmel Academy (124). There were 24 teams in the field of the Ochsner/LHSAA Cross Country Championships.
The 5A championship race was held November 16 at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches.
Freshman Michelle Daigle was SJA’s top finisher, placing seventh in a time of 19:09.7. Sophomore Hannah Vaughan finished in eighth place in 19:18.6 followed by sophomore Grace Rennhoff, 11th place, 19:31.6; senior Alexis Napoli, 13th place, 19:48.1; junior Emma Claire Hendry, 16th place, 19:58.3; senior Elise Jones, 19th place, 20:13.3; and senior Maddie Kate Gardiner, 25th place, 20:29.2.
“Wow, what a gritty race,” said head coach Mark LaHaye. “While it maybe didn’t play out how we had planned, our girls stuck together and just gutted it out for the win. They definitely earned it.”
Daigle said the race had a different feel from the start. “We were kind of separated and struggling, but I think everyone really stepped up,” she said. “I think what made it so special were the people I got to experience it with. We all had our problems and setbacks, our good practices and races and our bad. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t have wanted to win with anyone else. I’m excited for the next three years.”
Gardiner, a senior, said this championship was particularly meaningful. “This race is extremely special to all of the seniors since it completes our four-year streak of never losing a meet,” she said. “This run was very difficult, and we did not perform how we were hoping, but we still managed to come out with the win. I am so proud of all of my teammates for stepping up to the plate and bringing home the trophy.”
Vaughan said the depth of this year’s team was a deciding factor in the outcome of the race. “Although we were not feeling our best, we knew we could count on our teammates to bring us to victory,” she said. “I will always remember how the pain disappears after you cross that line. The feeling of accomplishment never wavers. The championship means that we made it; it is the end of a journey.”
Rennhoff said the win was fueled by the bond her teammates share. “That really motivates us,” she said. “I will always remember the amazing seniors and the impact that they had on us this season. This championship means that if we really put forth the effort, promise to stay positive and persevere, then we can be a dominating team.”
Napoli said that because the race didn’t go as planned, with some team members struggling, the win was all the more gratifying. “We worked together and pushed as hard as we could,” she said. “We knew that we were not going to get some of our goals, but the runners who knew they needed to pick it up did and helped to bring home another state championship. I will always remember how hard that race was. It was the hardest race I have ever run, but it was the most amazing feeling to know that I helped my team win that first-place trophy.”
Hendry echoed her teammates' sentiments. “Although we did not perform as well as we thought we were going to, I think our perseverance and drive helped us take the win home this year,” she said. “Each one of our teammates pushed so hard through the race, and I am so proud of each one of them for giving it their all. This state meet was so special this year because of the amazing support from our other teammates on the sidelines.”
Jones said that the goal of the team going into the race was to place all seven runners in the top 15. While that didn't happen, she expressed satisfaction in winning a state championship. “The complicated thing about running is that no matter how much you train and prepare, you don’t know how your body will perform until you start running the race,” she said. “Many of us got unlucky yesterday, and the competition from individuals on other teams was a lot higher than in past years.
“But the thing that matters the most is how close and supportive our team has been this year. There’s just been something in the air at practice and meets throughout the whole summer and fall, a feeling of love and support and unity. The other seniors and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of girls to conclude our cross country career with, and we can’t wait to see how they continue to grow next year. #7PEAT!”
Mindy Brodhead Averitt
Photos courtesy of Tina LaHaye and Amelia Cochran