They will boldly go where no Muskie cross-country running team has gone before.
Fort High will register a first in school history when it sends its trail-blazing team of female runners to the OFSAA cross-country provincials in Duntroon, just south of Collingwood, on Nov. 7 after they finished second at the NWOSSAA championships last Wednesday in Thunder Bay.
“First time for us—everyone is very excited,” said an overjoyed John Dutton, who coached his crew to a final team score of 47 points behind the division-leading Hammarskjold Vikings from Thunder Bay, who had 18 (the top four placings are added together for the team scores).
“This is a great way to cap off what has been a very successful season,” Dutton added.
“Much of our competition is made up of ‘year-round’ runners and so with a very short season, we have had a lot of catching up to do,” he noted.
“All of the athletes have made tremendous gains in their running over the past two months and every girl has contributed to our success,” Dutton said.
“Hard work and dedication to their sport paid off this week . . . and we will continue to train hard in preparation for OFSAA.”
After finishing 10th out of 19 teams at NWOSSAA last year, the Muskie senior girls found themselves having to only come in first or second in a three-horse race for the two team berths at OFSAA against the Vikings and St. Patrick Saints (Thunder Bay).
But when the Saints’ Brittany Anderson failed to finish the race, that left St. Patrick with only three timed runners—one short of the necessary four to stay eligible in the team competition.
That, in turn, guaranteed the Muskies would advance.
“To be honest, knowing that the Vikings had taken first place overall, I had actually told the girls we hadn’t qualified,” admitted Dutton.
“Once results were posted, it was actually Dryden coach Mike Woods that clued me in.
“I knew we had done well but this was the icing on the cake,” added Dutton.
“I could not be prouder of these girls.”
Leading the Muskies in the 28-racer field was team captain Jenny Hammond, who dashed her way to third place in the five-km race with a time of 21:43.
Hanna Johnston (Hammarskjold) sprinted to victory in 19:42 while Lindsay Robinson (Saint-Joseph) placed second at 21:36.
“Jenny was steady as always, holding on to second place for most of the race, just outsprinted in the final 100m,” recalled Dutton.
“She continues to be our team leader and an inspiration to the other girls.”
Sydney Radigan broke into the top 15 with a 13th-place showing (25:43).
“Syd ran a great race,” lauded Dutton.
“Over the next two weeks, we will continue to address some pacing challenges because I think she [Radigan] has another gear to find before OFSAA,” he added.
Close behind Radigan were a pair of Muskie teammates in Gabi Peters in 15th (26:43) and the team’s lone rookie, Erin Tomalty, in 16th (26:52).
“Gabi continues to show us what a tough competitor she is,” said Dutton.
“From the very start of the race, she made it her mission to not let another runner pass her, and then she made it her goal to overtake as many runners as she could over the course,” he noted.
“Erin, like most of our girls, is a hill-climbing specialist,” Dutton continued.
“Where the competition struggles to maintain pace on the uphills, Erin turns on the jets and powers up, accelerating all the way,” he marvelled.
“It’s great to witness.”
While not ranking among the top four Muskie finishers, Tory Beaudry still turned in a terrific day’s work by landing in 20th place (27:31).
“Tory has, on occasion, actually told me that she hates running,” Dutton laughed.
“But in Thunder Bay, no one would have ever guessed that.
“She pushed hard through the whole race and then, in one final effort, sprinted to her finish,” he noted.
Kennedi Handberg rounded out the Muskie senior girls’ results by coming in 24th (30:34) and will be the alternate on the team, which can start a maximum of five runners at OFSAA.
“Kennedi is our ‘never give up’ girl,” said Dutton.
“She will be the first one to tell you that she isn’t as speedy as many of the girls,” he remarked.
“But what she lacks in pace, she makes up for in determination and her effort was good enough for a respectable finish.”
Sydney Beck, the other Muskie participant at NWOSSAA, added her own noteworthy performance to the mix by coming in 20th out of 31 starters with a time of 21:13 in the junior girls’ four-km race.
It was won by Keegan Gaunt of the St. Ignatius Falcons (17:33).
“[Beck] found herself in some tough competition,” admitted Dutton.
“But always a competitor, she fought hard and was able to overtake runners on her second lap and finish in a respectable spot,” he noted.
Dutton had an inkling an OFSAA berth was there for the taking.
“Unlike running track, no two races are the same in our sport,” he remarked.
“Every five-km cross-country course has different challenges and so it is difficult to look at finish times and predict results in future races,” he noted.
“But based on the steady improvement throughout the season and past results at NWOSSAA, we knew we would be competitive.
“The weather was less than kind and the course in Thunder Bay is challenging,” Dutton added.
“But the girls did their jobs, hung tough, and pulled off the performances that I knew they were capable of.”
Dutton’s most difficult task now may be to eliminate any contented thoughts about getting this far his team may have stored in the back of their minds come race day next month.
“Just happy to be going is the furthest thing from our minds,” he stressed.
“Over the next two weeks, we will continue to train hard, run hills, sprint our intervals, and push our paces just as we have all season,” he said.
“As you know, competing at the provincial level against tougher competition is an important step for these girls in terms of athletic development and self-confidence,” Dutton reasoned.
“The great thing about our sport is that you achieve as an individual and you achieve as a team.
“And success is not always measured with gold medals,” he added.
“Every athlete on this team has set personal goals this season and very often in cross-country, athletes are racing against themselves to achieve personal bests and personal victories.
“We are aware that there are some very fine provincial and national-level athletes in the field, but it will not stop any of our girls from trying to run the race of their lives on Nov. 7,” he remarked.
Dutton said the true measure of the season’s success doesn’t necessarily come down to final placings for his runners at OFSAA.
“Predicting placements and finish times for this race is virtually impossible,” he conceded.
“But I will travel to OFSAA knowing that these girls all have big hearts and will run hard from start to finish,” he added.
“Our motto: best effort always—no regrets!”