WESTMINSTER -- The Key School didn’t have enough runners to field a girls cross country team last season, forcing Zoe Benitez to run with the boys at the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association championships instead of the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland championship race.
This season, not only did Key have enough to compete at the IAAM championships, it had the star power, as Storrie Kulynych-Irvin blew the field away to finish first overall in 18 minutes, 17.39 seconds, while Benitez finished third overall in 19:23.55 in a show of strength from the Obezags of the IAAM C Conference.
Juliette Whittaker of Mount de Sales was second in 19:08.58.
“I think for our team when we got everyone to the starting line, we wanted to do really well,” Kulynych-Irvin said. “So, it’s been really motivating since it’s the first year we’ve had an actual varsity team at Key.”
For Key coach Brandon Demers, the first inclination that something such as this was possible came at Hereford’s Bull Run Invitational in September.
“At Bull Run, it was the first time we got to see them stacked up against everyone,” Demers said. “Storrie ran a separate race, she ran in the small race and Juliette ran in the elite and she ran 1 second faster than Juliette and I thought, ‘whoa whoa whoa.' I didn’t see that coming. When we went into Bull Run, some other strong girls ran a 19:00. I thought under 19 minutes would be great but they both ran under 18:30."
Kulynych-Irvin ran an 18:24.10 to win the small schools’ race at the Bull Run by nearly 2 minutes while Whittaker ran an 18:26 flat to win the elite girls race.
Heading into Tuesday’s championship race, Demers knew that for Kulynych-Irvin to have any chance she would have to separate early from Whittaker, who has one of the best, if not the best, finishing kicks in the state.
“It was no secret going in that the one way to win this race was to make a break by the 3- or 4-kilometer mark,” Demers said. “If those two are together in the last half mile, you are going to favor one of the premier half milers in the nation. Storrie’s job was to sit, do as little thinking as you can and go on the hill right before 4K.”
That’s exactly what Kulynych-Irvin did to secure her victory.
“I know I don’t have much of a kick and Juliette runs a really fast half-mile,” Kulynych-Irvin said. “The start was definitely fast, and it took me a while to work up to it, but I run best with even splits but probably that hill at the beginning and then the 4K mark, those were the big parts. I just tried to hold on after that.”
It wasn’t just holding on as she won by nearly 53 seconds over Whittaker and secured the school’s first girls championship in cross country.
“It feels great,” Kulynych-Irvin said. “Zoe is a sophomore now, but she had a great season last year so together we are kind of the leaders of the team. We have other kids who want to join from the middle school team so next year looks pretty strong.”
It was a strong team performance from Maryvale, which placed all its scoring five in the top 25, led by Rachel Thomas, who finished fifth, to win the A Conference championship, 33-52, ahead of Notre Dame Prep.
“We have worked so hard this season and the top five have been so close,” Thomas said. “I think we had a lot of girls step up and I think we all really put it together today and did a great job, I’m so proud of them. I think we worked out the numbers beforehand and we knew what girls were on each team and we kind of tried to place it where we could place in front of each one and I think we planned it really well today and we pulled it off.”
Mackenzie Saneman finished sixth for the Lions while Julia Merriman finished fourth for Notre Dame Prep. The top four finishers in the B conference all finished in the top 10 overall led by Karenna Laufer of St. Pauls’ (seventh), Maggie Winstead of Bryn Mawr (eighth), Madison Cote of AACS (ninth) and Erin Jacobs of Glenelg Country (10th).
Cote took third place among B Conference runners. Megan Hruby was the top St. Mary’s finisher in the B Conference in seventh place.
John Carroll won the B Conference title over Bryn Mawr, 64-70, while St. Vincent Pallotti defeated Catholic High, 55-65, to win the C conference championship.
Overall: 1, Kulynych-Irvin (K), 18:17.39; 2, J. Whittaker (MDS), 19:08.58; 3, Benitez (K), 19:23.55; 4, Merriman (NDP), 20:38.36; 5, Thomas (MP), 20:55.40; 6, Saneman (MP), 21:03.89; 7, Laufer (SP), 21:07.32; 8, Winstead (BM), 21:26.14; 9, Cote (AC), 21:39.69; 10, Jacobs (GC), 21:44.80
A Conference: 1, Maryvale, 33; 2, Notre Dame Prep, 52; 3, Mount de Sales, 80; 4, Roland Park, 111; 5, Archbishop Spalding, 114
B Conference: 1, John Carroll, 64; 2, Bryn Mawr, 70; 3, St. Mary’s, 89; 4, Annapolis Area Christian School, 105; 5, Glenelg Country, 118
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C Conference: 1, Pallotti, 55; 2, Catholic, 65; 3, Park, 97; 4, Mercy, 105; 5, Key, 127