By David Fong
TROY — That his team reached the Division I state cross country meet is of very little surprise to coach Kevin Alexander.
How his team got there is another matter entirely.
“No way,” Alexander said. “If you had told me in mid-September we would be getting ready for state, I would have said, ‘Not a chance.’ What these girls have done is pretty amazing.”
With nearly all of the key runners returning from a team that missed state by a whisper in 2014, Alexander felt good about his team’s chances of reaching state this season — Troy has in fact qualified for state and will become the first girls team in school history to compete there this Saturday — even while competing in the loaded Southwest Region, which is widely regarded as the most talent-rich region in the state.
That, however, was in the preseason, before things started falling apart. Three of the team’s top runners from a year ago — Emma Shigley, Rachel Davidson and Abby Pence — all suffered various injuries and ailments. Shigley and Davidson were able to return to varsity midway through the season, while Pence never has been able to return to form this year.
“We knew we had all the core parts returning from last year — but then Emma Shigley and Rachel Davidson got hurt,” Alexander said. “Those were two of our top runners and they ended up missing all of August and half of September. If you miss a couple of weeks in distance running, that’s huge. It’s not like other sports where you can play your way back into shape. Most of the time, if you miss two weeks, that’s it.”
With Shigley and Davidson — the team’s No. 2 and No. 4 runners a year ago — on the shelf early in the season, however, the Trojans were not only able to keep things together, but to excel.
“I know a lot of people may think coaching cross country is easy — you just tell the kids to go out and run,” Alexander said. “There’s actually a lot more to it than that. And this year, especially, it’s taken some craftiness … and some luck. We were able to get Shigley and Davidson back — although neither one of them is 100 percent right now — just in time.
“If they come back a week or two later, this doesn’t happen. This whole thing falls apart and we aren’t going to state. So we’ve had a little luck there.”
It hasn’t all been luck or piecing together various parts — some of it has simply come as the result of hard work.
At the top of the roster, sophomore Morgan Gigandet — the team’s top runner a year ago — has continued to improve and has gone from a great runner one of the top three in the state. Fellow sophomore Megan Myers — the team’s No. 3 runner behind Shigley a year ago — dedicated herself to improving in the summer and the results have been obvious as she’s become the team’s solid No. 2 runner.
“We knew Megan could do what she could do physically,” Alexander said. “The talent has always been there — it was just a matter of whether or not she wanted to commit. Last winter, she did great during December, but after Christmas, I didn’t see her for two months — and you could tell every day during track season.
“She did not have a good track season at all. She wasn’t where she needed to be because she didn’t put in the work in the winter. But once track season was over, she decided she didn’t want to stink anymore. She worked hard every day and has come a long way.”
The rest of Troy’s roster has been filled out by some unexpected — and some not-so unexpected — newcomers.
Freshman Kate Pence — Abby’s younger sister — was a top-tier junior high school runner last season and has made the successful conversion from junior high school to high school meets as the team’s No. 3 or No. 4 runner. While her emergence wasn’t particularly shocking, the emergence of a pair of converted soccer players to round out the team has been nothing short of incredible.
Freshman Olivia Tyre never ran cross country in junior high school and began the fall as a member of the Troy junior varsity soccer team. Junior Megan Studebaker also is a former Trojan soccer player.
“Kate Pence has done about what we expected her to do,” Alexander said. “Olivia Tyre began practicing with us once or twice a week in August and would throw in the occasional Saturday meet if she didn’t have a soccer game. (Troy girls soccer) Coach (Michael) Rasey said that wasn’t a problem.
“Megan Studebaker played soccer as a freshman and then decided she wanted to give cross country a try. Then she had to miss her sophomore year because of mono. She was out for the whole season. She had a decent track season last spring, but then worked hard over the summer and came in her junior year ready to go.”
Now, with all the pieces in place, Troy will compete at state — and, should things shake out, has a chance to make a splash at the state level. The Trojans finished the season ranked No. 5 in the Division I state cross country poll.
“We’ll see how things go,” Alexander said. “We are going over there to compete. We’re going to give it our best and see what happens.”
Contact David Fong at [email protected]; follow him on Twitter @thefong