By Willa Moffatt,
The Davis High women’s cross-country team headed to the Glendoveer Golf Course in Portland, Ore. for the Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) race on the morning of Dec. 5, excited but uncertain of what race day would bring. Plagued by injury, top runner and two-time fourth-place finisher at NXN Fiona O’Keeffe made the decision to race minutes before the gun went off.
In the chaos of the mud and the rain, team members all wore little geese pinned to the back of their uniforms so they could always spot each other mid-run. Then they flew to second place in the nation.
Consisting of seniors O’Keeffe and Elise Chu, juniors Abbey Fisk and Sofia Castiglioni, sophomores Olivia O’Keeffe and Sage Taylor and freshman Sophie Lodigiani, the Davis team (144) ascended the podium in a state of bewilderment, unsure of how they belonged there. In fact, they had beaten out longtime California rival Great Oak, (third in 171), which just a week earlier captured the state championship by only two points over Davis.
Manlius of New York, which has won nine of the last 10 NXN races, finished first with 55 points.
By all accounts, the Blue Devils’ historic finish was a surprise. Senior Elise Chu said the team was returning to the athlete village to play in the mud when the girls heard the news.
“[Initially] I had no perspective on how we did,” she said. “[Our coach Bill Gregg] texted us saying that we needed to go to the finish line. I think, then, I had a slight suspicion that we were on the podium.”
Assistant coach Tim Groth described the sequence of events right after the race.
“Everything happened so quickly. They announced that Great Oak had gotten third and Bill and I were like, ‘Ok, I hope we still finish in the top five.’ And then some of the NXN officials started telling us, ‘Go get your girls. Where are they?'” he said.
“And Bill and I were pointing at each other going, ‘Who, us? You want us to go get our team?’ […] And it was crazy and when we got up [to the stage] and they announced they were second, it was incredible.”
One of the largest uncertainties before the race was whether or not Davis’ top runner Fiona O’Keeffe would run. She had been sidelined by tendinitis and leg injuries for nearly two months, and could barely walk after an eighth-place finish at the California state meet the week before.
“We talked about it a lot because we knew that whether she ran or not could seriously affect how we did as a team,” Chu said. “I’d say we were prepared for either situation because we wanted Fiona to do what was best for her.”
Though it was clearly a team effort, O’Keeffe’s participation (she finished 85th) helped push the team from fifth to second. Gregg said it was truly a last-minute decision, as O’Keeffe had been hurting earlier that week and was not sure if she would be an effective part of the team.
Gregg told her that being the fifth runner or above for DHS would contribute, and if she was hurting, she could drop out.
“This was all about eight minutes before the start. Based on that she put her spikes on and decided to go,” he said.
And go the Devils did. Castiglioni, who was the team’s first runner that day and finished 42nd overall, thinks the girls “did well because we were running more for our team than ourselves.”
O’Keeffe felt the same. “It was a little odd finishing so far back, but […] running with the girls in a pack definitely helped me get through the race.”
Gregg was impressed by not only O’Keeffe’s resilience but also that of her teammates.
“Her absence this year really forced everyone to look inward and step up their game,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that was a blessing in disguise, but it was really remarkable to see everybody else step up and sort of forge out the identity of this team without their number one runner.”
The 2015 team’s finish dramatically improved the squad from two years ago, when Davis took 12th and O’Keeffe reported “we were satisfied with that placement.” Last year, only O’Keeffe qualified as an individual.
As a coach, Gregg said, there’s always a sense of satisfaction each season, but “I guess this year there’s an extra sense of satisfaction and a ton of pride and feeling grateful for being around a remarkable group of young women,” he said.
Though O’Keeffe and Chu are graduating this year, the returning five are already excited for what the future will bring.
“It’s been fun experiencing NXN as a freshman because I know I could come again. For the future, I just hope I can stay healthy and improve for next year,” Lodigiani said.
Check out the official meet results and pictures at nxn.runnerspace.com.
Editor’s Note: HUB radio editor Meghan Bobrowsky also contributed to this story.