The worries about “back issues” for two of his runners were whisked away in the warm, dry winds, and Holy Savior Menard cross-country coach Wally Smith was smiling again when the race was done.
Menard, with three of the top 10 finishers, lived up to its billing as the No. 1 seed by scoring 49 points to win the Class 2A girls state title at the end of day one of the LHSAA Cross Country Championships at Northwestern State University. Classes 2A through C competed Monday, and Classes 3A and up will compete Tuesday.
Menard’s boys, with four of the top 39 runners, led by 20th-place finisher Cole Robichaux, finished fifth.
Junior Mallory Robichaux, with a third-place finish (19:13), led the way for the girls. Eighth-grader Grace Ahrens, one of the two girls with “back issues” that worried Smith going into the meet, finished seventh (20:09) and senior Lindsey Vaughn placed 10th (20:18).
“Our little theme is ‘I’m fine,'” Smith said with a smile about Ahrens and freshman Merrik Bowman, the Lady Eagles’ fourth finisher at 16th overall (21:07), surviving their back problems.
“Without them, we wouldn’t have won,” said Smith, who guided Menard’s girls to their eighth state cross-country championship and second in three years.
St. Thomas Aquinas was runner-up with 71 points, just ahead of third-place Episcopal of Baton Rouge (73). Junior Haley Johnson of Newman won the race for the second straight year (18:57.17) as Newman finished fourth with 85 points.
“I think I got it solved,” Ahrens said of a chronic problem with a muscle she pulled in her back during the summer and which has flared up from time to time. “I really wanted to run state and did everything I could to get here.”
Bowman explained she has had lifelong back problems, which get aggravated over the course of a cross-country season, because of a “sway back” curvature of her spine.
“I told myself that no matter how much it hurt, I was going to push through it,” she said, adding that her back was hurting just before the race. “Once the gun went off, I forgot about it because everything else was hurting.”
Smith declined to pick favorites among teams he has coached to titles.
“Some people say the first is the best,” he said. “Well, no, the last one’s the best. When you consider the aches and pains and everything they’ve been through, nobody’s worked harder than these girls.
“We knew nobody could beat us but ourselves,” he went on, “and that’s not going to happen with this group.”
Robichaux was shoulder-to-shoulder for a while with the eventual top two finishers — Johnson and St. Thomas Aquinas junior Bobbi Amar — before fading a bit to finish third.
“It was a tough race and they’re both really good competitors,” she said. “I’m happy with (third). The course was long. It was about a 5K, but it’s always that way.”
Vaughn said she was hurting early in the race (many runners complained of sore throats), but she said to block out her pain, she thought about — and dedicated her effort to — Chase Michiels, the Menard junior who died in a single-vehicle car accident and was buried last Thursday.
“We worked hard for this,” said junior Kelly Robichaux, who finished 17th overall. “Even when people kind of doubted us, we pulled through. We ran with our hearts.”
Mallory Bartow, the other senior with Vaughn, finished 18th. She said it was hard to believe her Menard cross-country career was over.
“It,” she said of the championship, “was a great way to end the season.”