By Brian Eller
THE PLAINS -- Fifty yards from the finish line, Kayla Gibbons collapsed.
Her knees buckled, sending her straight to the ground in pain. She was so close, yet with her body completely exhausted, the end of the race seemed miles away.
As she fell, her sixth-place position quickly became seventh, then eighth, then ninth. She knew she couldn't quit. Not when she was this close. She needed to finish. Her team needed her to finish. With that in mind, she climbed back on her feet.
Each step was precious, forcing her to dig deeper for any remaining ounce of energy, while the top of her body seemed like it weighed a ton. By the time she was a few steps from the finish line, she was practically crawling, moving only a few more steps before falling one final time as she crossed the threshold.
It had taken everything Gibbons had to finish, unfair for a girl who had already sacrificed so much to be one of the top runners in the state. But as it turns out, Gibbons 16th-place finish hadn't hurt Warren County's team. It was quite the opposite.
With Gibbons' ability to finish the race, her points helped the Wildcats post a team score of 113, good for third place in the Group AA state tournament, the school's first ever top-3 finish.
"I'm just amazed right now," Wildcats coach Jeremy Burnworth said. "For Kayla to do what she did ... if she doesn't finish, we don't finish where we did. I said last week [at regionals] we were going to run better today, and that's exactly what we did. I just, I don't know what to say."
Fortunately for Burnworth, there wasn't anything that needed to be said for his team. As the girls stepped up to receive their trophy, with Gibbons assisted by her teammates, the group of young runners knew their hard work had paid off.
Junior Leanna Eisenman had led the way, finishing 14th with a time of 19:06. Gibbons was one spot behind her, while freshman Rachel Oden clocked a personal best with her 27th-place finish in 19:37. Senior Tiffany Hatcher finished 39th while sophomore Ariel Asher capped things off with a 57th-place finish in 20:21.
"It's just very exciting," Oden said. "I thought I ran really good today, and Kayla finishing the race was so great to see. We did really well as a team and it showed today, I think. It feels really great."
And while Warren County took home a team trophy, Region II also produced some top individual results. Millbrook's Crystal Nelson finished in sixth place, running in 18:26. Her time was four spots better than Sherando's Krista DeCeault, who took 10th place in 18:57. Nelson's teammate Karly Knechtel finished 15th in 19:08.
In the boys' race, Skyline's Thomas Madden bounced back from what he called a disappointing performance at the Region II meet, finishing second overall, less than a second behind Grafton's Kyle King who took the individual championship. Both runners clocked in at 15:21, a mark Madden said was among his top overall times.
"I think this was my best race of my career," the sophomore said. "I ran a really smart race and it worked out for me. Kyle's got such a good kick so it was tough to beat him there in the end, but I was really happy with the way I raced."
Madden said his approach to this race was to play it "smart," meaning for the Hawks' top runner, the usual plan of keeping pace in the top pack was replaced with the goal of running behind the front pack, giving him time to get in position to finish out in front.
The strategy paid off, too, as Madden and King were neck and neck coming down the home stretch, before King pulled away just slightly to win the race.
For Madden, his second-place finish set the pace for Skyline's second consecutive sixth-place team finish, as juniors Sean Park, Clay Jones and Marshall Eckert all finished in the top 35 spots, giving the Hawks a team score of 173.
Meanwhile, Warren County's Seumas O'Reilly came in at sixth overall with a time of 15:44, one spot ahead of Handley's Tom Delaney, who finished with a time of 15:49.
"I tried to stay with the front group and I died," O'Reilly said. "Usually I burn myself out at the beginning of a race so I stay back, but before the race I thought I might as well give it all I've got at the start and see where it takes me. But it didn't work out for me."