JEFFERSON CITY – While her expression didn’t show it, Blue Springs South’s Tori Findley was extremely disappointed when she finished second last season in the Missouri State High School Cross Country Championships.
She was bested by Washington’s Mikaela Reed, and at the time, it was her first loss of the season. Even after that, Findley still managed to look happy.
In 2017, Findley was determined not to finish second again.
She dropped basketball and soccer to focus on cross country and track and field. The result? Findley dominated every race this year, and Saturday was no different as she finally captured that elusive Class 4 state individual title with a time of 18 minutes, 9.34 seconds at the Oak Hills Golf Center.
Not only that, Findley led her team to a fourth-place finish with 138 points, 12 ahead of fifth-place Washington, to secure a state trophy. Park Hill South won the event with 92 points.
“The past few years we got fifth and that was really tough,” Findley said. “I think this is the closest team we’ve ever had. Our motto has been ‘Run for the team and run for each other.’ We got a huge trophy for the school and there’s just nothing like it.”
All the hard work in the offseason and sacrificing two sports paid off. It paid off in the form of a smile as Findley flashed a wide one when she approached the finish line, easily finishing ahead of the rest of the pack, including Reed.
Her sophomore year, Findley was third, last year she was the runner-up, and now she is the champion.
The senior didn’t appear to be tired. If she was, she hid it well. She embraced her coaches with hugs afterward after achieving her ultimate goal.
“Tori took the loss pretty hard,” Unruh said of Tori’s second-place finish last season. “She had been sick all week and gutted it out. She didn’t have it last year. She was on a mission this year. She’s super talented and really tough. She really wanted this.”
The heartbreak of finishing second in 2016 was gone.
“Last year I was under the weather, it just sucked,” Findley said. “I just came in this year and told myself, ‘Hey, this has to be better than last year!’”
That was just one of the things that karma had appeared to swing South’s way.
It was just last week when a tidal wave of misfortune had crashed down on the Jaguars. When they were on their way to the sectional cross country meet in Kearney, the team bus broke down on the way there. Not only that, but three team members were ill. Two raced anyway, and their No. 5 runner had to sit out because of the flu. The Jaguars managed to finish second at sectionals anyway to advance to state as a team.
Last year, the Jaguars missed out on a team plaque by three points, finishing fifth. In 2015, South was eight points away from taking fourth.
But at last, head coach Ryan Unruh broke the news that would quash those memories of heartbreak shortly after the race. While the Jaguars were chatting with one another, Unruh let them know they finally reached the podium. The girls screamed, raised their arms and jumped up and down.
The pendulum of fortune finally swung their way.
“It’s nice to see something go our way finally,” Unruh said of his team. “It was nice to see all of our girls get rewarded for their hard work, not just Tori and Danielle.”
After Findley crossed the finish line, she wasn’t ready to walk away just yet. She turned around and was waiting for someone. A few seconds later, teammate Danielle Hotalling met her there, finishing second in 18:24.31.
When Hotalling finally finished, she started to collapse but Findley was there to catch her.
“She looked at me and asked, ‘Is this real? Did that actually just happen?’” Findley said, recalling what Hotalling said. “We were just so happy.”
Added Hotalling: “It was so cool. She was right there and I collapsed into her arms. There was so much emotion that overcame me. It’s cool that after four years, we finished like that. I was dead. I asked, ‘What just happened?’”
All year Findley and Hotalling had been finishing first and second in each race leading up to state. Hotalling admitted she never thought she would finish second at state. When Unruh told her earlier in the season that Findley and she would finish 1-2 at state, she didn’t believe him.
“I don’t think she believed me when I told her that,” Unruh said of Hotalling. “I believed in her. She has a ton of talent. It’s great to see her get the recognition she deserves for being runner-up. That’s pretty cool.”
To her surprise, Unruh’s prognostication came true.
“I am still trying to process it,” Hotalling said. “I am still trying to recover from the race. After the race I was thinking, ‘Wow. I actually did that.’ I wasn’t trying to be outcome-based and just run my best race and see what happens.”
Also contributing to the team score were Lauren Low (39th, 20:03.18), Emma Bassford (40th, 20:03.31) and Paige Fallis (136th, 21:35.76). South also had Amaya Hernandez finish 147th at 21:56.76.
OTHER RESULTS: The Blue Springs Wildcats had a pair of all-state finishes as Tessa Valdivia was sixth at 18:25.31 and Elaina Hubner was 16th at 19:27.10.
“I realized I was in 11th place (at the final stretch),” Valdivia said. “If I finished 11th again, I wouldn’t have been happy. That’s where I finished last year. I didn’t want that to happen again, so I just told myself to push it and stay with that Ray-Pec girl (Makenzie Stucker) and I did. I eventually just went past her.”
Added Hubner: “I wanted to know I left everything out on the course. I wanted to run to hard that by the end of the race, I knew I couldn’t push any harder.”
Lee’s Summit North’s Madelyn Robinson also earned all-state honors (20th, 19:32.9).
Also finishing the race in the area were Truman’s Stacy Briggs (29th, 19:55.47); Fort Osage’s Hailey Alvis (99th, 20:56.47); Grain Valley’s Valerie Holcomb (21:08.84); and Lee’s Summit North’s Annie Mccord (73rd, 20:37.07) and Samantha Simpson (95th, 20:50.93).
In Class 3, Van Horn’s Karli Schnakenberg finished 126th (22:50.20).