First place was the furthest thing from Mary Richardson’s mind.
Even when Newark Catholic coach Rennie Bare suggested it Friday, Richardson, a senior, did not quite believe him.
“(Bare) had said something like randomly, ‘Yeah, just don’t go out in the front right away,'” Richardson said. “That just completely shocked me. ‘I have a chance of winning?’ I thought I was going to be 20th or something.”
On Saturday, Richardson made herself a believer. She ran away from the competition during the third mile to win the season-opening Newark Catholic Invitational on the grounds of the Bryn Du Mansion. Richardson’s time of 19:35.3 was 14 seconds better than Columbus Academy’s Julia Rizk.
It has been a whirlwind 12 months for Richardson. A year ago, she ran 24:33, finishing 57th in the opener.
“I was thinking (toward) the front that their pace was a little slow,” Richardson said. “In track, my strategy is to stay behind No. 2 and beat them at the end. I honestly had no idea how to run a cross country race now that I am more in shape.”
Richardson gained confidence during an outstanding track season. She capped it with a fifth-place finish in the 3,200 during the regional meet.
Richardson said she prefers track, but cross country might be creeping up her list of favorites.
“My coach said there was a mile to go, and I thought I wasn’t even tired yet,” she said. “I said, ‘Let’s just go.'”
In the boys race, NC senior Tanner Ernest opened his redemption season with a fourth-place finish (17:16.2). It was his first race since he was disqualified in the regional meet, losing his trip to the state meet.
“I am ready to go back to Troy and kick some butt, take names,” he said. “That disqualification stuck with me all offseason. Those 14-mile runs, I was thinking about that in the back of my head. I am ready to go now.”
Ernest was with the front pack the first half of the race. Newark senior Toby Hardwick then broke away and ran down Liberty Union’s Wyatt Gardner for his second straight title in the event.
Hardwick surprised spectators when he abruptly stopped with about 400 meters left and a healthy lead to take off his shoe.
“I figured I was going to catch him,” said Hardwick, who was a 2012 state qualifier. “I left at a really good time, so I could get a good distance away from him. I had to take off my shoe because the shoelaces were just smacking my legs.”
Newark’s Isaac Wheeler was sixth (17:22.2), and Licking Valley’s Griffin Butler was ninth (17:51.6).
Liberty Union won the team race with 69 points. Newark’s 138 edged the Green Wave for fourth by two points in the 17-team meet.
In the girls race, Newark freshman Lauren Fischer had an impressive debut, placing ninth (21:07.6). She finished just behind Granville Christian’s Lauren Keiser, who was seventh (20:41.5).
“It was really nerve-racking with all of the girls because Bryn Du is so big with the open field,” Fischer said. “I was really tired. My calves are sore, but I just had to keep pushing myself.”
NC finished fourth with 117 points in a tight team race. Columbus Academy won with 91. Newark was seventh with 194.