The drama at the Central Ozark Conference Small Cross Country Championships was all in the team competitions.
The Springfield Catholic girls were a team that had never lost a COC Small cross country title, and the Bolivar boys had not won a conference title in years.
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Bolivar head coach Ron Bandy knew the Irish weren’t going to give in on either side easily, especially in the girls’ race.
“The (Catholic) girls have just whooped us the last several years,” Bandy said. “We knew it was going to be tight. They were not going to back down and they didn’t disappoint.”
The girls and boys race both came down to narrow margins as the Liberators swept the titles.
On the girls’ it was all about Bolivar’s pack against the more spread out Catholic team, and for much of the race it looked as if the Irish were going to extend their streak of titles.
“Catholic had us beat I think until the last mile. They had us beat and then we kind of gobbled a few up and then they passed us a little bit and we just battled all the way in,” Bandy said.
The difference would be made not by the front three of Cora Spellman-Butcher, Allison Porter and Jessica Cox, but by the final two scorers for the Liberators.
“My No. 5 runner Veronica Hancock and Lindsey Wilson my No. 4 runner, they were really the key. The top girls did their job obviously, but those were the two sitting behind Catholic’s four (and) five and both of those (girls) really turned it on,” Bandy said.
Both Wilson and Hancock were able to get in front of Catholic’s Nos. 4 and 5 runners to help buoy Bolivar to the championship with 31 points, which was six ahead of Catholic’s 37-point output.
Bandy has been preaching to his girls to run as a pack all season long, and it is beginning to pay off heading into the championship meets.
“That is something I saw as a young runner and was always enamored by it (pack running). Watching Jeff City with what they called ‘The Pack Attack’ and being competitors against West Plains. They are just magical at running as a pack. It is something that I have tried to instill in my team,” Bandy said. “It is hard to tell a kid that I know you can run faster, but you are going to bring somebody up today. You are going to sacrifice a little bit to bring your team up.”
The Catholic girls suffered their first team title loss in a long time at the conference meet, but Catholic head girls coach Nick Russo has no regrets about the way his girls ran.
“I couldn’t ask any more of these gals than what they gave today,” Russo said, “They gave a maximum effort. I couldn’t be any more proud.”
One of those girls who gave a maximum effort was the individual champion Kelly Devlin. She rolled easily to the individual title in a time of 19:40.68.
Russo was confident about the race despite the quick early pace set by Buffalo’s Shelby Jackson.
“When she fell behind early, did I think that Kelly was in danger of losing this race? Absolutely not. I had Kelly penciled in as the winner of this race. I told her you go out and do what you need to do. There isn’t anyone in this field that is going to be able to push you today,” Russo said.
Devlin also remained calm in the face of the early deficit.
“She (Jackson) goes out really, really fast. I have to be patient with myself because I know that I can beat her because in all the other races I eventually catch up to her,” Devlin said.
That patience paid off as Devlin won her first high school conference title. Last season she didn’t get to race as her season was derailed throughout by injuries that culminated in not being able to run the State meet.
“She warmed up at the State race and looked at me and said ‘I can’t do it’, but I will be back next year and you will get the old Kelly Devlin back,” Russo said. “I have gotten that and more.”
Devlin now looks to even bigger things in the upcoming championship meets.
“I want to keep pushing myself,” Devlin said. “I have that burning fuel to do better and better.”
Jackson held on for second in a time of 20:10.63. Butcher-Spellman and Porter were third and fifth for Bolivar. Catholic’s Lydia Holtman worked her way in the middle of the two in third.
Rogersville finished third as a team with 86 points.
On the boys’ side, the individual race was decided early as Buffalo’s Jonathan Murphy ran away from everyone to win in a time of 16:51.86 despite worries to start the race.
“I had a lot of doubts coming in. There is a lot of competition here. I was really scared before the race,” Murphy said.
It turned out he had nothing to worry about as Bolivar’s Ryan Dickey was the next closest finisher at 17:20.36. The Catholic duo of Jacob Eck and Neal Ukena finished third and fourth, setting the stage for a wild team race.
For the Liberators the rallying cry was just one word: guts.
“It is an old term Joe Bill Dixon uses at West Plains and it is just guts. That is what we kept yelling just guts, guts, guts; your last mile you are going to have to have guts and that’s what they did,” Bandy said.
Bolivar was able to pull out the three-point victory 49-52 to take the title.
Top to bottom the Liberators ran well.
“They were going to have to run their best race of their season and for some of them their life to win today and they did it. I can’t say enough about how pleased I am,” Bandy said.