JEFFERSON CITY – Just call them Team 49.
That’s the nickname the Blue Springs South girls cross country team gave itself before the season started.
“We were originally ranked No. 49 in state,” Jaguars sophomore Jayme Opdahl said, referring to the preseason rankings of mo.milesplit.com. “We called ourselves Team 49. We used that to motivate us the whole season.”
A year ago, South finished fourth in Class 4 at state with Missouri Gatorade Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year Tori Findley winning the individual title and Danielle Hotalling, who finished as the runner-up, leading the way.
This season, the Jaguars didn’t have one athlete who could dominate a race like Findley or Hotalling but proved that they weren’t the 49th best team in the state Saturday at the Missouri State High School Cross Country Championships.
They were better.
South repeated that fourth-place finish with 131 points, earning a state plaque for a second consecutive year at Oak Hills Golf Center.
Lee’s Summit West won the event with 58 points. Blue Springs senior Tessa Valdivia finished her career with a bang as she took second overall with a time of 19 minutes, 0.46 seconds. Lee’s Summit West’s Ginger Murnieks won the individual title in 18:35.78.
Blue Springs South finishing 45 spots higher than it was projected was especially satisfying to coach Ryan Unruh.
“This has been by far the most gratifying year,” Unruh said. “Our expectations were low, and it’s just been a fun year. They worked hard and they ran for each other and good things happened in the end.
“They are talented, but they are the closest team. They run for each other and just sacrifice for each other. You can see that in the way that they race.”
After the event, the South girls posed for pictures while holding the fourth-place trophy. Unruh panned a small camera across two rows of runners who were jumping up and down while cheering. Before that, there was one other person Unruh filmed – Findley.
The University of Missouri freshman made the 33-mile trip from Columbia to Jefferson City to see her former teammates and show support.
“Her and some of the other girls have been surprising us at the other meets,” Opdahl said. “It literally brought some of us to tears to see them again. It was so good to have Tori back.”
The Jaguars, who didn’t have a single senior, were led by junior Lauren Low. She was the only South runner to finish with all-state honors as she took 14th in 19:35.13.
“I am really excited and I couldn’t have got here without the team. They are super supportive,” Low said. “I just want to get out hard enough where I could get myself in a good position and just sat there and moved up throughout the second and third mile.
“We are all really close friends and we were running for something other than ourselves.”
That approach proved to be a successful one.
“We had to win a different way,” Unruh said. “And staying close together and in a pack was the way we did that.”
Rounding out the top five for the Jaguars were Opdahl (27th, 20:05.71), freshman Mya Trober (41st, 20:21.03), freshman McKenna Ledgerwood (47th, 20:28.53) and junior Paige Fallis (105th, 21:12.83).
“All-state was one of my goals, but I am proud of where I am at as a sophomore,” said Opdahl, who was two places away from earning all-state honors.
Blue Springs’ Valdivia earned all-state honors for the third straight year and surprised herself with the second-place finish (she was sixth in 2017 and 11th in 2016).
“This was amazing, I actually didn’t think I was going to get second,” she said. “I felt good and I just powered through it.”
Her finish was a reason to celebrate.
“We’re going to an ice cream place called Central Dairy,” Valdivia said of her post-race plans with her parents. “We’ll talk about my race and my season in track.”
Lee’s Summit North Madelyn Robinson was the other Eastern Jackson County competitor to earn all-state honors, finishing 25th (19:55.97).
Other county athletes to compete at state were North’s Annie McCord (35th, 20:16.27), Grain Valley’s Ella Casey (51st, 20:31.44), Fort Osage’s Brooklyne Sederwall (75th, 20:51.10), North’s Lily Madden (97th, 21:10.13), Blue Springs’ Alyna Thibault (100th, 21:11.57), South’s Kelsey Mills (156th, 22:14.21) and Gianna Dietrich (157th, 22:17.55).
CLASS 4 BOYS: Last season, senior Gabe McClain helped the Blue Springs Wildcats win a team state championship after finishing 28th overall, three places away from being all-state.
This time, he earned an all-state medal in his final high school season, finishing 17th in 16:35.25.
“To get all-state is exciting, but I was hoping for a lot more,” McClain said. “I can’t complain. There are people who would kill to get all-state. I was hoping to get anywhere from fourth to eighth.
“I pushed it at the end and risked it, and it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to.”
Blue Springs South junior Dillon Grover was the other area runner to finish with all-state honors, taking 18th (16:35.56).
“I was 60th last year,” Grover said. “I was hoping for top 14, but I am perfectly fine with 18th. I felt good and pushed myself to stay with that top pack the best that I could. I pushed it for the first two miles, so I could get a cushion for the last mile.”
Other area competitors to complete the race were South’s Jack Klassen (92nd, 17:29.75) and Blue Springs’ Brock Wooderson (138th, 18:02.31).
CLASS 3: Oak Grove’s Blake Nichols waited until his junior year to compete in cross country for the first time.
After not making it to state last year, the senior proved he was one of the best in Class 3 as he took 24th (17:20.72) to earn all-state honors.
“I wouldn’t say I was surprised, but I knew it would be tough coming in,” Nichols said of being all-state. “I just worked for it and went and got it.”
Other area runners to compete in Class 3 were Oak Grove’s Matthew Young (128th, 19:05.44) and Van Horn’s Rickie Rogers (129th, 19:07.57) and Angel Marmolejo (130th, 19:09.35).
Oak Grove’s Mikayla Mapes was the area’s lone girls competitor in Class 3. She took 90th (22:30.71).
CLASS 2: St. Michael the Archangel Catholic qualified its boys team for state and it finished 15th with 370 points.
The top five for the Guardians were Christopher Oberkrom (115th, 19:47.96), Christopher Pouncil (122nd, 19:52.89), Nathan Valdiviez (127th, 19:57.48), Jack Wheeler (138th, 20:17.48) and Zhenya Johnson (145th, 20:29.21).
Grace Wheeler was the Guardians’ lone girls competitor. She was 40th overall (22:33.50).