Myers Park Coach Quinton Hayes was pleased with his team’s performance last year at the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s Class 4A state cross-country championship, where the girls came in fifth because he felt his runners had lived up to their full potential.
As the Western Regional approaches on Oct. 26 at McAlpine Park and the state championship nears on Nov. 2 at Kernersville’s Ivey M. Redmon Park, Hayes isn’t expecting any less, with confidence that his team again will run their best in the year’s biggest meets.
But now, the bar has been raised, and the Mustangs have climbed to first in the state rankings regardless of classification, according to NCmilesplit.com, and boast a bevy of talented runners to back up the lofty expectations.
“I think it’s just another year maturing and gaining experience, really,” Hayes said. “Everyone has continued to work hard and accepted the freshmen.
They’re the two best freshmen in school history, so to get them at the same time gave us a jumpstart.”
Adding freshmen Story Gourley and Kate Eiselt has certainly provided a spark to an already talented team.
“I was nervous coming into high school, but I was excited for the team part,” Eiselt said. “But I also didn’t realize that we were going to get this close with the team. I didn’t know what the relationships would be like, but this has been great.”
The Mustangs accepted their talented newcomers with open arms and have since grown closer, uniting the team to become the state’s top collection of runners.
It wasn’t until the Wendy’s Invitational on Oct. 5, one of the Southeast’s largest gatherings of cross-country teams and a meet the Mustangs won, however, that they ultimately validated their potential –at least to themselves.
Junior Mary Prouty led the way in that event, where she ran 18 minutes, 7 seconds, the second-fastest time in school history at McAlpine Park, putting her just behind former Mustang and current Olympian Julia Lucus.
Eiselt (18:52) and Gourley (18:53) ran the fastest freshmen times in school history. Senior Abby Watkins ran a personal best (19:14). Rachel DeMay shaved a whopping 3:30 off her previous best to set a personal record (19:31) and seniors Madeline Frank (19:58) and Meg Green (21:11) ran solid races. As a testament to the Mustang depth, fellow senior Julia King has run a personal best of 19:33 this season.
After all crossed the finish line at the Wendy’s Invitational, the Mustangs were left waiting on the finishing standings.
“At Wendy’s we knew that we were No. 1 or 2, but didn’t know that we’d won,” Watkins said. “We were all sitting in the stands and when they called the No. 2 team to come up, we realized we’d won and we all kind of freaked out.
Well for like five minutes, we were all screaming, and it was really exciting so, yes, we freaked out.
“I was hoping that we were going to be good, but I didn’t expect us to be ranked in the state or anything. We didn’t know what we were or what we could do until the Wendy’s meet. This has been amazing and it’s been really fun to be a part of.”
It’s the close bond between a talented group of freshmen and an experienced, and equally strong, group of upperclassmen that has the Mustangs thinking this is the year they could walk away as state champions.
And as good as they are, the Mustangs are having fun enjoying the journey that’s taken them to the state’s top team.
“We have a really good time together. Well, actually we’re kind of obnoxious,” Watkins said. “We have a really loud cheer, we wear glitter. Our cheer is amazing – it’s really cocky and it works.”
The Mustang cheer has become a rallying cry and they aren’t timid if a chance presents itself to bust it out in unison:
“The ‘M’ is for miles, we run more than you. The ‘P’ is for passing, cause that’s what we do. The ‘X’ is for excitement, we know we’ll run real fast and the ‘C’ is for see ya because we know you’ll finish last. Myers Park (clap, clap) Mustangs (clap, clap). Whoa! 1,2,3 MP, you know!”
Watkins said her team had been up and down going into the Wendy’s Invitational. But after their first-place finish and, of course, another chance to sing the Mustang cheer together perhaps this time louder than ever, the Mustangs were sure they had made a statement.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure everyone knew who we were when they saw us all screaming,” Gourley said. “That’s been the best part. We have so much fun together and that pushes each other to run well. Without that, it would be difficult to be doing what we’re doing.”
What the Mustangs are doing is an amazing feat and something Hayes sees continuing in the post-season meets.
“The older girls have been to three state championships, so it’s kind of a been there, done that for them,” Hayes said. “Being on a big stage now doesn’t rattle them and the two freshmen, you know people always say the young ones don’t know any better.
“They’re going to run fast and not get mixed up in any of the pressure and I think that saying is true for them. Plus, having the older girls with all of that experience helps the young girls and they won’t get rattled.”
While the instant impact the freshmen have made is a huge plus, Hayes added, it’s Watkins’s continued development, DeMay shaving an unheard of 3:30 off her personal best and Prouty’s development as a true No. 1 runner that’s pushed the Mustangs over the line this season.
“Everyone has improved and continues to do well,” Hayes said. “We have eight to nine girls who can run under 20 minutes. And we’ve had Mary take that big next step and now she’s the true front-runner. Last year our No.1 girl finished 15th (at the state tournament), now we have a top-10 finisher and that’s a big help.”
It’s bittersweet for the seniors as they prepare to run their final two meets, but the team’s exceeded expectations make the sting of the finale a little easier to handle.
“This year has been so fun and I’m actually super sad that it’s almost over,” Watkins said. “(The Southwestern 4A conference meet on Oct. 10) was our last home meet and it was so sad, but winning states would make it OK that the season is almost over. That would be amazing.”
And it isn’t out of the realm of possibility, Hayes said.
“Our goal is to always be on the (trophy) stage,” Hayes added. “That’s always where we’re aiming at. Whether that’s first top two or three, that’s where our focus is, and we’ll let them count the points when they cross the finish
“If the seven girls go the line and do what they’re capable of, I think we have a pretty good shot. I like my seven against any seven in the state.”