By Jordan Ercit
Kitchener Post staff
The expectations were modest. Their nerves were aplenty. And OFSAA, that wasn’t even on the radar.
“I thought we might do well in a few races, but I didn’t even know you could place as a team,” Heather Lehan said. “We were just trying to run as fast as we can. But everything clicked.”
Once a collection of anxious minor niners, once a group of reluctant runners with varying athletic abilities and interests, St. Mary’s top midget girls cross-country competitors are off to OFSAA with room to spare.
And now Sydney Collins, Christie Downey, Heather Lehan, Carina De Sousa and Sheena Flanagan are confident in their ability to race with the best at Heart Lake Conservation Arena, where the provincial high school cross-country running championship will be contended on Saturday in Brampton.
“Our goal is to get top 25 as individuals, but I think our team has a very strong chance of doing well,” Downey said. “I guess we’re all pretty strong runners.”
Strong may be an understatement.
At the District 8 Athletic Association championships, the Eagles were dominant, capturing the midget girls team title with no worse than a 12th-place finish as Collins, Downey and Lehan finished top four.
And at CWOSSA, they were just as impressive with Collins, Downey, Lehan and De Sousa placing in the top eight, while Flanagan was 39th in a field of 127 runners.
That gave the five 14-year-old St. Mary’s students a berth into OFSAA and a wide margin of victory over the other qualifier, the Our Lady of Lourdes team from Guelph, whose top runner placed one spot behind the Eagles’ four best finishers.
They will be joined by teammates Jaimie Phelan, Ben Flanagan, Dejen Abraha, Keaton Jones and Taylor Gagne, who will compete in senior races. Meanwhile, the Cameron Heights junior boys team of Andrew Shepherd, Ilir Lazoja, Alex Kozak and Tanmay Patel also qualified for OFSAA with a second-place finish.
But for the St. Mary’s midget girls, it wasn’t expected at the start of the season.
All five said they struggled with early morning practices at the start of the school year and trailed the likes of Elmira’s Taylor Rempel and Woodland Christian’s Paige Easterbrook in season-opening races — all but Flanagan passed them by the end of the season.
Meanwhile, Collins, who finished third overall as the top Eagle at CWOSSA with a time of 11:18.07, wasn’t sure of her commitment to the cross-country team as she balanced figure skating practices at Preston Skating Club.
“When we first started out I think we were all intimidated by the all the older people, because they were all so good at running and intense about it,” Lehan said. “But then we found out, after like the first meet, that everyone is really nice about everything and welcoming.”
It made things easier when the two most-accomplished athletes on the team — OFSAA senior boys and girls medal favourites Flanagan and Phelan, who defended their respective CWOSSA titles last week — were encouraging their new teammates on the practice trail, helping motivate them at races and providing tips in between.
This week alone Phelan, a multiple OFSAA medal winner in cross-country and track and field, was telling the youngsters what to expect at an event that attracts hundreds of athletes from across the province — and requires them to battle their way to the front with 250 other midget girls competitors.
“She’s gone through everything,” De Sousa said. “She’s knows what to expect.”
Despite being rookies, the Eagles have their own tactics that have powered them to the front of the local midget girls cross-country pack as well.
Aside from Collins, most of them have siblings or cousins who already race for the Eagles cross-country team and have built up their endurance in figure skating, soccer and dance.
Collins, De Sousa, Downey, Lehan and Flanagan are also close friends, either having attended the same school, played on the same house league team or mingled in the same social circles for years.
“It’s not like we’re ignoring each other during races and saying, ‘Don’t talk to me, I’m in the zone,’” Collins said.
That, too, comes in handy on the cross-country course, to the point where races start to feel just like their light-hearted, high-fiving practices at St. Mary’s.
“We’re not trying to compete against each other, we’re trying to compete together,” Flanagan added.