Howard runners Amanda Eliker and Sara Kindbom talk after the Lions swept the team titles at the Howard County Cross Country Championships on Oct. 24, 2018.
HOWARD COUNTY, MD — Howard cross country coaches Zachary Dickerson and Allison Follmer sat down with junior Amanda Eliker on Tuesday to discuss Eliker’s race plan for the Howard County championships the following afternoon. More specifically, they talked about how Eliker would handle competing against River Hill sophomore Faith Meininger.
If Meininger pushed the pace for too long, Dickerson and Follmer recommended Eliker back off for fear she would burn out. Meininger placed second at the league meet a season ago and ran away with the Howard County Invitational in September, making her the favorite for Wednesday’s county race. If Eliker tried to hang with Meininger, she risked falling from second place to fourth or fifth and losing points for her team.
The beginning of the race unfolded as the coaches had anticipated, with Meininger racing ahead of the pack and Eliker hoping there would be an opportunity to make her move. That chance came with less than a mile to go when Eliker, sensing that Meininger was struggling, caught up with Meininger before passing her and eventually pulling away. She finished with a title-winning time of 18 minutes, 51.95 seconds.
Before the race was through, Howard sophomore Sara Kindbom had run down Meininger to take second in 18:59.16, and juniors Emily Gorny and Madison Radford placed seventh and eighth, respectively, to clinch the Lions’ first girls’ team championship since 2007.
“At the [Howard County Invitational] at the beginning of the season, we got second by only one point,” said Eliker, referencing the Lions’ tie-breaking loss to Centennial on Sept. 8. “And from that, we were so determined to win today at counties.”
A dominant Howard squad finished with 40 points, followed by Centennial (61 points), Atholton (77), River Hill (111) and Reservoir (123). Individually, Meininger (19:18.95), Reservoir senior Annabel Cortez and Centennial senior Cora Blount rounded out the top five.
“A lot of what cross country is about is about mental focus, and I think for a lot of athletes, once that mental focus has a crack in it, it’s tough to recover from that,” River Hill coach Paul Hugus said. “And I think Faith saw that today. She let someone kind of pry open a little opening, and she didn’t close it right back up.
“So, it’s something we are aware of — we’re working on it — and hopefully we have a couple of weeks to get it fixed.”
As for Howard, Follmer agreed the frustration from losing the Howard County Invitational on a technicality motivated her runners to come back to Centennial and prove itself to the rest of the league.
She also pointed to pack running as a reason for Howard’s improved depth. While Eliker, Kindbom and Gorny have consistently provided the Lions with top finishes this season, their fourth through seventh placers have had a hard time grouping up during races. To fix this, these runners changed their practice habits. On easy runs, hard runs or anything in between, Follmer ensured they ran with one another.
Their results Wednesday turned out to be even better than expected, as Radford ran what Dickerson called “the race of her life” to snag eighth in just over 20 minutes (20:02.04). The Lions’ fifth scorer was Jenna Pasternak, though she, Samantha Cavanaugh and Natalie McCourt all finished between 22nd and 27th.
“We sat them down a couple of days ago, and we looked at it and said, ‘this is the team you were in September. We’re not that team anymore. We’re a better team now,’” Follmer said. “I was like, ‘We’re not looking at times today. We’re looking at places. Every place matters, and every person matters.’”
11. Maria Grafov, MH, 20:19.83; 12. Gabriella DeGrezia, A, 20:20.69; 13. Sara Carlisle, A, 20:28.01; 14. Meah Konstanzer, Re, 20:29.15; 15. Michelle Weaver, C, 20:30.52; 16. Raaya Khleif, RH, 20:33.16. 17. Katherine Kitzinger, RH, 20:33.75; 18. Camryn Streib, A, 20:35.06; 19. April Smith, G, 20:36.96; 20. Katie Melesko, G, 20:38.73.
Nanjappa wins individual title; Howard goes back-to-back
River Hill junior Anish Nanjappa has made a habit out of besting county competition this season. He finished third behind two Anne Arundel county runners at the Seahawk XC Invitational on Sept. 1, then secured runner-up to Loyola Blakefield’s Camden Gilmore at the Howard County Invitational a week later. Most recently, Nanjappa won the Frank Keyser Invitational on Oct. 13 with a season-best time of 15:31.20.
Nanjappa could not match that blistering time during Wednesday’s cross country county championships but cruised past the competition nonetheless, winning the Boys’ A race in 15:54.44, about 10 seconds faster than Oakland Mills senior and second-place finisher Frederick Eiland II (16:04.51). Atholton senior Javon Daniel (16:08.14) placed third.
“It was almost a perfectly executed race,” Hugus said. “From my perspective, [the race] looked a little bit slow, but once he made a definitive move, the runners realized he was the class of the field today.”
On the team side, not even Nanjappa could prevent Howard from securing its second straight county championship after not winning one the previous four decades. Sophomore Kendall Phillips (fourth) and senior Alex Strawley paced the Lions, who put up 68 points to defeat top challengers River Hill (83 points) and Centennial (86 points).
“It’s some of the tradition that is now in place. They want to continue that,” Dickerson said. “We had that talk that last year was the first year that we won in 40 years, and let’s make it two and a row and let’s keep that going. So a lot of it is seeing what a lot the guys did before them leading up to last year and what they did last year, and not wanting to be the ones to drop that baton.”
From Day 1, Strawley said the entire team trained with the goal of winning another county title in mind. It did not matter that the Lions graduated reigning boys cross country Runner of the Year Nick Deamer or that they lost five of their top seven runners overall. It was the job of this year’s runners to “keep on that legacy,” Phillips added.
It did not take long for Dickerson to realize he had another county title contender. He saw the development of his younger runners during the outdoor track season this past spring and their continual improvement over the summer. Howard’s time trials were actually faster than last year’s.
On Wednesday, their triumph was a product of their consistency. Phillips and Strawley kept the Lions’ team score low by placing in the top six, while top-20 finishes from seniors Tariek Williamson and Cole Partridge helped them hold off the Hawks and Eagles, who each had three top-20 runners. No other team could match the Lions’ balance.
“We were looking out for Centennial, River Hill, Atholton because we know every team here is strong, and we knew it was going to come down to points,” Strawley said. “We knew every position mattered.”
The Lions’ team race plan centered around working in pairs, with Phillips and Strawley getting out towards the front of the pack, Williamson and Partridge staying between 10th and 15th and Tim Goulet, Collin Hawkins and Jakob Werdell zoning in on the secondary runners for River Hill and Centennial. Dickerson believed that if his fifth through seventh runners could finish near or better than each opponent’s No. 5 runner, the Lions would have the upper hand.
Slowed starts plagued the Lions once again on Wednesday — something Dickerson hopes will improve ahead of next week’s regional meet and the state championships on Nov. 10 — but each runner worked back up to their targeting position to help their team finish on top.
“They did it,” Dickerson said. “They were tough. That last mile was really impressive. They moved up 10 to 15 spots collectively that last mile, and that made the difference.”