With temperatures quickly rising on Saturday morning at the annual Howard County Invitational, Howard High's Courtney Mann and Oakland Mills' Joey Navarro proved that it's not about where you start, it's where you finish.
In each of their respective races, the duo hung back in the pack for the first mile or so before methodically making their move toward the front. Ultimately, the strategy worked to perfection as Mann pulled away from the competition over the final mile of the girls race to win with a time of 19 minutes and 24.28 seconds, and Navarro won a sprint to the finish to win the boys race with a time of 16:06.38.
"I just really told myself to hold onto the group the whole race and there were times that I really didn't think that I could to do it but I just, I just felt really good," said Mann, who ended up beating second-place finisher Claudia Wendt of Good Counsel by 26 seconds. "Throughout the race I just kept on hanging on to Jasmine (Tiamfook from River Hill) and the Good Counsel girl … I just really gave it my all because I really wanted it."
Navarro's final stretch was a little tighter, but he too had enough left in the tank to complete the victory. Hunter Petrik of Mount St. Joseph (16:10.38) and Rahul Reddy of River Hill (16:11.10) ended up rounding out the top three.
"This feels absolutely amazing and yeah this course did have me pretty beat, but I powered through," Navarro said. "Some excellent runners to be running here against and I just felt really motivated, and that's what got me through the line."
In the team competitions, River Hill's girls cruised to a victory with a total of 59 points— 21 points clear of second-place Severna Park — and the Severna Park boys won comfortably as well with 99 points — 24 ahead of second-place Liberty.
Pack running proved vital for each of the team winners. Severna Park, led by Garrison Clark in 13th place, grouped five runners in the top 30 all within 26 seconds of one another.
River Hill, meanwhile had all five of its scorers place in the top 19 and the team's third, fourth and fifth runners were separated by 14 seconds. Tiamfook ended up as the team's top finisher in fourth.
"I'm really proud of the effort and we talked all week about sticking together as a pack and the start was phenomenal with everyone getting out quickly. That really set the tone for what the race was going to be," said River Hill coach Paul Hugus. "When we can get our three, four and five girls together like we did today, we are going to be a really tough team to contend with.
"The best part about it is that I think we didn't even run our best. Still some improvements to make for sure, but I'm overall very pleased."
The girls individual race featured a tightly packed group right from the beginning, with Wendt and Tiamfook setting the pace in the early stages. It wasn't until around the two-mile mark that Mann made her move to the front.
Once she did get the lead, though, she never gave it back.
"On the double hill over there I realized I could get ahead of Jasmine on the hill and she was a little bit more tired than I was," she said. "So when I got up and over to the other hill I really decided to just kind of start moving up. As soon as we got to the gravel path, I let my stride loosen up and I really took some nice deep breaths.
"I just hung on and started making my move then."
Wendt finished second and was followed by St. John's Cady Hyde (19:52.07), Tiamfook (20:00.45) and Centennial's Kara Taylor (20:10.34) in the top five. Other top 10 finishers from Howard County included Centennial's Alison Betler (sixth), River Hill's Owen Dannelly (seventh), Howard's Ada Holtan (eighth), Mt. Hebron's Emily Beyer (ninth) and Howard's Emily Magoon (tenth).
Behind champion River Hill and Severna Park, Centennial (82 points), Howard (92) and Mt. Hebron (145) rounded out the top five in the girls team competition.
The boys individual race turned out to be even tighter than the girls, with seven different runners leading at one point or another. Navarro, the eventual winner, wasn't even in the top five at the mile mark.
The key, though, was that the Oakland Mills senior was close enough to keep touch with the leaders and pace himself for a strong surge as the race progressed.
"Our coach always preaches a big second half, always push toward the latter half," Navarro said. "I was with the guys, they were going, I was going. We all knew what we had to do. I was tired, but it felt great at the same time as well."
By the time Navarro reached the stadium for the final 200 yards, he had put himself out in front. But, with several runners nipping at his heels, he also knew there was no time to ease up.
"I'm always nervous. I know there's always somebody closing in on you, so at that point it's got to be a really hard push," said Navarro, who ended up maintaining his lead through the finish line to win the title.
Nick Tilson of Liberty and Michael Belmaggio of Linganore rounded out the top five after Navarro, Petrik and Reddy. Other top 10 finishers from Howard County included Nick Deamer (eighth), Jacob Edmondson (ninth) and Jonathan Sussman (tenth).
In terms of the team competition, Howard finished as the best Howard County squad in fourth place overall with 147 points. Behind Deamer, the Lions also put Ryan Gunderson (25th) and Gavin Reynolds (29th) in the top 30 overall.
"The boys had two main goals, to be top three overall and to be the top Howard County team. So we accomplished one of them, and Howard County has some very strong teams this year so I'm proud of that finish today," Howard coach Zack Dickerson said. "With the weather being what it was, it was such a wild card. Kids respond very differently to this kind of heat, so taking that into account, I'm very happy with where we are going forward in the season."
Mt. Hebron was sixth for the boys with 175 points and River Hill (188 points) seventh.
The anticipated hot temperatures, which ended up pushing into the 90s by 10 a.m., had caused race officials earlier in the week to move the original start times for the races up an hour. The girls "A" race started at 9 a.m. and the boys "A" race began roughly 30 minutes after.
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Still, even with the precautionary measures, the decision was made midway through the morning to ultimately cancel the running of the "C" races in the interest of safety.