LEXINGTON – Denise Benson’s “dream team” is one race away from making it a reality.
Undefeated all season and the unanimous No. 1 pick in the Division II state coaches poll, Lexington’s girls cross country team has more than lived up to the hype.
“The team chemistry this year is just amazing,” said Benson, the Lexington head coach. “They’re confident and just going out there and racing. That makes me happy. Turn the watch off and compete and the times will come. That’s what we accomplished (at regional), not worrying about all the little things.”
They’ve dominated all season, but Saturday they took it to a different level. Lady Lex not only swept the first four positions at the Tiffin regional in Hedges Boyer Park, but they did so by breaking 19 minutes. While cross country courses aren’t equal, no other Division II girls team in the state came close to those kinds of times last week.
“We’ve really packed it up the last weekend,” Lexington junior Whitney Wendling said after finishing as regional runner-up in 18:35, 20 seconds behind senior teammate and champ Dominique Clairmonte. “We had second place, third place and fourth place were all within five seconds of each other, and that is huge when it comes to state, trying to keep everybody else not trying to add points to our score.”
Following her was senior upstart Abby Miller, who broke through with an 18:38, and junior Mackenna Curtis-Collins with an 18:40.
“They’re amazing runners. Sub-20s are phenomenal for high school girls,” Curtis-Collins said. “Personality-wise they’re all so fun to be around and all match perfectly together. They’re a great group of girls. It’s a dream. It’s absolutely amazing. If I’m going to get beat, I want it to be by my teammates. That’s completely OK with me.”
To put it in perspective, Lady Lex posted the second-best spread of times of the 16 teams in the regional at 1:15.5. Considering the lead runner is the defending state champ, Lexington’s No. 5 runner sophomore Olivia Wolfe isn’t far behind.
“At the beginning of the season we were pretty packed up where it was more of our fourth through seventh girl. Now we’re starting to pack up toward the front and that’s really strong going in,” Miller said.
Besides the talent and speed flashed this season, Lexington has been a team with a mission. Last year they went into the state meet ranked fourth, but not only ended as state runners-up, they missed a state championship by one point to Granville. And it’s that one point that has motivated this team for 365 days.
Just this week, Curtis-Collins said that one point close call was a topic of discussion in Spanish class.
“It still really sucks,” she said. “It’s really disappointing to know that we were that close, like one-tenth of a second. It’s really hard. “It’s a lot of our motivation to know we could be state champions and we were so close to it before. We got a taste of it, but we want to have a full experience.”
“It pushed us to work a lot harder because we had everybody coming back. We have to be careful and can’t get too caught up in the No. 1 ranking. We just have to race,” Wendling said.
Clairmonte’s 18:15 was four seconds quicker than her regional winning time last year, and she did so by burning out to a 5:22 first mile, which is a sub-17-minute pace. She learned her lesson and admits she’ll be smarter Saturday when the gun goes off at 11:45 a.m. at National Trail Raceway in Hebron.
Clairmonte also admits it’s been a challenge trying to best herself. As a junior she experienced a charmed season and went undefeated individually. This year she was beaten in Centerville by Lainey Studebaker, and when not pushed by competition, the measuring stick was beating the times posted a year earlier by herself.
“Mentally it’s difficult because having such a great season last year and trying to repeat all that is a lot of pressure. Even when I don’t PR or do as well as I think I should, that’s difficult,” Clairmonte said. “I feel sometimes that I’m not doing any better, but I realize at some meets I have been getting better.
“I made my break though last year, so coming into this year I’m trying to PR but it’s a lot more difficult. Last year was amazing for me. The thing I’ve tried to do is enjoy the season and try to look at how it is coming into it, that I can do what I did last year and still feel good about it.”
One thing that would make her feel good would be a team championship.
“As a team we’ve bonded so well and we’ve really been looking forward to the state meet where we have that chance and we know we’re going for the title,” Clairmonte said. “This week is exciting because we’re doing it as a team and it’s going to be something that’s huge for all of us.”
But it hasn’t yet sunk in just what they’ve accomplished to this point. After Saturday, maybe.
“I think after the fact we’ll realize just how special it is,” Miller said. “Coach is always telling us, ‘Do you know how good this is? This is a dream team.’”
Lady Lex is a race away from making that dream a reality.
State Cross Country Championships
Saturday at National Trail Raceway, Hebron
Division III girls, 11 a.m.: Fredericktown (Rachel Caputo, Emily Cobb, Lauren Davis, Nichole Groseclose, Bridget Roddy, Ashlyn Shrimplin, Rachel Tumbleson); Northmor (Brooke Bennett, Slena Cortez, Isabelle Ditullio, Kristen Duryea, Sydney Jennette, Reanne McDonald, Samantha Peters); Mansfield Christian (Claire Reynolds); Mount Gilead (Jenna Shipman).
Division II girls, 11:45 a.m.: Lexington (Ashley Basham, Dominique Clairmonte, Mackenna Curtis-Collins, Abby Miller, Emily Taylor, Whitney Wending, Olivia Wolfe).
Division I girls, 12:30 p.m.: Ashland (Brooklyn Duewel).
Division III boys, 1:30 p.m.: Colonel Crawford (Brad Bauer, Brandon Bauer, Wade Hopkins, Braxton James, Chad Johnson, Brandon Long, Nick Studer); Fredericktown (Caleb Carter, Wyat Harmon, Wil Overholt, Dillon Randall, Paden Spencer, Zac Stalnaker, Bradley Wolford); Cardington (Jacob Long, Josh Queener); Mount Gilead (Austin Hallabrin); Mapleton (John Smith).
Division II boys, 2:15 p.m.: Lexington (Kyle Johnston, Ryan Johnston, Noah Sgambellone, Bailey Stach, Nick Stricklen, Clay Sturts, Forest Volz).
Division I boys, 3 p.m.: Ashland (Adam Benway, Eugene Cho, Alec Coleman, Edmund Coleman, Blade Estle, Luke Gravitt, Andrew Stump).