In cross country meets, programs’ sixth- and seventh-place runners do not factor into their team result. Well, at least they’re not supposed to.
But thanks to a unique circumstance at the Howard County Invitational on Saturday, Centennial junior Apoorva Ajith greatly affected the meet despite being the Eagles’ No. 6 runner.
When officials revealed the team scores for the Girls A division, Centennial and Howard sat atop the leaderboard with 65 points apiece, meaning each of the squad’s top-five runners — also known as “scorers” — totaled the same amount.
To break the tie, the officials looked at the result of the “first displacer,” which is each team’s sixth finisher. Ajith had a a time of 22 minutes, 14.27 seconds. Howard’s counterpart, meanwhile, finished about six seconds later (22:20.28).
“Honestly, I had no idea,” Ajith said when asked if she initially thought her score would impact the team. “I ran with the intention to do my best and run my hardest, and if it helps the team, that’s perfect. But I didn’t expect to have any influence.”
By the narrowest of margins, Centennial was crowned meet champion while Howard settled for runner-up. Following these two juggernauts from the county were Atholton in the fourth place with 108 points and then River Hill (fifth), Glenelg (sixth), Reservoir (seventh), Mt. Hebron (10th), Marriotts Ridge (11th) and Long Reach (15th).
“They understand a situation where if the sixth-place girl is kind of struggling a little bit, the next girl totally understands, ‘OK, I have to do this. I have to step up. I have to make sure that I’m there, and I have to do the job for my girls,’” Centennial girls coach Kevin McCoy said. “They’re so close and so tight and they adopt the family atmosphere so well. It’s just beautiful to watch.”
Seniors Alison Betler and Cora Blount finished fifth and seventh, respectively, to lead the way for Centennial, while the Lions relied on a trio that co-coach Zachary Dickerson said could be the best in the state.
Junior Amanda Eliker crossed the finish line in 19:45.45 to earn second place before sophomore Sara Kindbom came in about nine seconds later in third and junior Emily Gorny finished about 25 seconds after that to snag fourth. No other program, boys or girls, had its top three runners finish in the top 11.
“They did a great job today,” Lions co-coach Allison Follmer said. “They worked all through the summer leading up to this season, and they really wanted it and were fighting for it.”
Knowing the Lions have three athletes that will be near the front at “every single meet,” Dickerson said the focus now becomes helping the secondary runners further improve their times as a group. He added that this meet was a “big step forward” from the Seahawk Invitational on Sept. 1.
While River Hill came in fifth and was the fourth-best county team, the Hawks boast the best runner in the county right now and one of the best in the state.
After three straight All-County seasons (cross country, indoor and outdoor track and field) as a freshman last season, Faith Meininger opened the 2018 campaign with a runner-up finish at the Seahawk Invitational on Sept. 1. On Saturday, she picked up her first individual title of the year.
Meininger admits she’s “not the best starter,” meaning that she typically falls back at the beginning before making her way to the front of the pack as the race progresses. She usually knows her competition and can estimate how much ground she needs to make up.
But that wasn’t the case this time. Racing against some unfamiliar foes prompted Meininger to flip her race strategy. She ended up getting out to a fast start and never let up, crossing the finish line in a blistering 19:18.26 to win the race by about 27 seconds. It’s now a tactic she plans to use more going forward.
“This year, we started to think about what she wants to accomplish as a four-year runner,” Hawks coach Paul Hugus said, “and there’s no reason she can’t start now. So, she’s going to have to put her mark on every race she’s in, and you can’t do that from 10, 15 seconds back; you have to do that from the front.
“But she’s learning, and it’s going to take a little time, but I’m excited to see what she does in some of the bigger races.”
Other top-10 finishers from the county were Atholton senior Camryn Streib (ninth, 20:35.91) and Glenelg Country senior Emily Shorb (10th, 20:44.66).
Top county girls’ finishers:
1. Faith Meininger, RH, 19:18.26; 2. Amanda Eliker, Ho, 19:45.45; 3. Sara Kindbom, Ho, 19:54.38; 4. Emily Gorny, Ho, 20:09.92; 5. Alison Betler, C, 20:18.72; 7. Cora Blount, C, 20:30.94; 9. Camryn Streib, A, 20:35.91; 10. Emily Shorb, GCS, 20:44.66.
12. Maira Grafov, MH, 21:03.14; 13. Katerina Talanova, C, 21:07.49; 14. Annabel Cortez, Re, 21:08.07; 15. Celine Pisanic, A, 21:08.62; 19. Raaya Khleif, RH, 21:20.27; 20. Christina Stavlas, C, 21:21.58.
County girls’ team scores:
1. Centennial, 65; 2. Howard, 65; 4. Atholton, 108; 5. River Hill, 123; 6. Glenelg, 189; 7. Reservoir, 206; 10. Mt. Hebron, 234; 11. Marriotts Ridge, 248; 15. Long Reach, 487.
On the boys side, Loyola Blakefield secured the team title with 109 points and Severna Park (119 points) was the runner-up, with Howard (121), Liberty (129) and Oakdale (157) rounding out the top five.
Dickerson was pleased with the Lions’ third-place finish. After losing five of their top seven runners from last year’s county championships team, including Runner of the Year Nick Deamer, the Lions have reloaded thanks to veteran leadership and talented underclassman. Senior Alex Strawley paced the group with a ninth-place finish (16:37.40).
Among county teams, the next best finish was River Hill (sixth) followed by Atholton (seventh), Centennial (ninth), Mt. Hebron (11th), Marriotts Ridge (13th), Reservoir (15th), Oakland Mills (16th), Wilde Lake (18th), Glenelg (20th), Long Reach (22nd) and Hammond (23rd).
“It’s worrisome for a coach to think about losing the great runners that we lost,” Dickerson said, “but they took it as an opportunity for themselves, our seven through 12 guys, to really step up and really put in the mileage and become now our top seven. It all started with them.”
Leading the pack from the county was River Hill junior Anish Nanjappa, who followed up his third-place finish at the Seahawk Invitational with a second-place result at the Howard County Invitational. Despite having what he viewed as a slow start, Nanjappa broke into the top four relatively quickly before establishing himself as the clear-cut No. 2 to Loyola Blakefield’s Camden Gilmore. In the end, Nanjappa crossed the finish line in 16:15.92; almost 19 seconds slower than Gilmore but at least a few seconds ahead of the field.
“As far as place goes, I’m pretty happy,” Nanjappa said. “It’s the beginning of the season, and it’s pretty early, so I’ve got a while to go.”
Along with Strawley and Nanjappa, Oakland Mills senior Frederick Eiland II was the other county runner to place in the top 10. He came in third with a time of 16:18.78.
Top county boys’ finishers:
2. Anish Nanjappa, RH, 16:15.92; 3. Frederick Eiland II, OM, 16:18.78; 9. Alex Strawley, Ho, 16:37.40.
11. Jake Perret, A, 16:43.57; 12. Sam Iseman, MH, 16:46.80; 14. Javon Daniel, A, 16:48.36; 19. Cole Partridge, Ho, 16:55.13.
County boys’ team scores:
3. Howard, 121; 6. River Hill, 168; 7. Atholton, 180; 9. Centennial, 203; 11. Mt. Hebron, 287; 13. Marriotts Ridge, 405; 15. Reservoir, 432; 16. Oakland Mills, 437; 18.Wilde Lake, 497; 20. Glenelg, 528; 22. Long Reach, 599; 23. Hammond, 609.