Avon Lake girls cross country is back. That much was obvious Saturday when the Shoregals claimed their first district championship in more than 20 years.
Sure, the Shoregals are heading to regionals this Saturday for the second straight year, but the win cemented their return to the top. Avon Lake defeated defending champ Avon 62-68 for the Division I Northeast district title at Lorain County Community College and its first district win since 1996 when the program was still Division II.
The comeback hasn’t been easy.
From 2010-2015, the Avon Lake girls were 0-for-6 in their effort to make regionals. Before that long blight, the Shoregals advanced to regionals eight times in 10 years.
Behind sophomore Maggie Jantz (sixth, 20:09.11) and freshman Riley Mullen (seventh, 20:14.78), Avon Lake ruled the day.
“We’re a very good team,” Jantz said. “We support each other, push each other and want the best for each other. We want the best for this team and to do the best that we can. The focus is on the team and not focusing on individuals too much. That’s the main key.”
Last year the Shoregals were fourth of five qualifiers at districts, then finished 18th of 24 teams at the Boardman regional.
“Coach (Rob Juergens) doesn’t let us dwell on past races as far as what we’re doing wrong,” Jantz said. “He has something specific for each person, which is so important. He focuses on everybody individually like what we need to do throughout the race. He feeds us information during the race like what place we’re in and where we need to be in the next mile or he’ll tell us our times. During our team meetings he’ll give us speeches of influence and motivation.”
Emma Sherban (12th, 20:45.50), a junior, and freshmen Erin Boland (17th, 20:54.81) and Alli Starr (20th, 21:03.77) rounded out the Shoregals’ top five. Sophomores Isabell Russell (22nd, 21:10.92) and Olivia Crimaldi (24th, 21:17.72) rounded out the varsity at districts.
“The upperclassmen have been so very caring, making sure that we’re very comfortable with the team,” Mullen said. “They’re so inspiring. That’s really helped us.”
Only 54 seconds separated the Avon Lake girls’ top five at districts and only 68 seconds separated its varsity seven. All seven Shoregals finished before any of the other teams’ No. 5 runner.
“Our only goal was to beat Avon,” Mullen said. “We did and that was very exciting. Maggie and I work so well together. Teamwork is one of the most important things about our sport.”
Avon Lake is a young team with five members being either freshmen or sophomores. There are no seniors.
Jantz, Sherban and Crimaldi are the only runners back from last year’s regional team. Mullen, Boland, Starr and Russell are new to this year’s varsity.
“Our coach really focuses on team bonding,” Mullen said. “I think that’s very important. You can’t be a team without it. The coach doesn’t really force it on us. The team totally has taken it upon ourselves. We try to be as close as we can. Like before the SWC meet, we had a team movie night.”
Earning one of seven state berths and 28 individual spots at Boardman won’t be easy. There are eight state-ranked teams in the field in No. 7. Medina, No. 10. Hudson, No. 14. Massillon Jackson, No. 15 Chardon, No. 17. Brunswick, No. 18 Wadsworth, No. 19 Mentor and No. 20 Shaker Heights.
“It’s a competitive region,” Juergens said. “There are quite a number of good teams coming in. We got the first step of getting there. We’ve beat some decent teams this year. It’s pretty hard to say. I don’t know what kind of chance we actually have. Regardless, regionals give us a chance to improve, whatever that means.”
Juergens has coached the Avon Lake boys since 1998 and added the girls in 2014.
“Districts was the best whole team race we’ve had,” he said. “To have seven girls to finish like that is impressive, but I think there’s still some room for improvement.
“It’s what I was hoping for. I knew (the freshman class) was good coming in, but I didn’t know how good. The transition can be a little tough. They’ve done a great job. They earned a chance to go. We’re there. It’s not handed over. I would be happy to be as competitive as we can be. Whatever happens, happens.
“Some of those girls (from other teams) have a lot more experience than mine do, but that’s OK. It’s to do the best you can and walk away knowing you gave your best. If something good happens, great. If not, learn from it and move on and keep going. I think it’s just great that they made it. We had a couple injuries and couple girls that weren’t able to return from last year’s team and we graduated a couple. We lost four of our top seven or eight runners, (but) I think they’re ready to go.”