It always comes down to Sydnie.
For four seasons, she has led North Rangers Girls Cross Country, this small team of underdogs who could always count on her to make them proud. When other teams dismissed them, Sydnie was there passing their fastest runners. When her teammates focused on keeping up and competing with each other, Sydnie was there claiming North’s place among schools with larger, faster teams. When her teammates looked to her for when to warm up, what to wear, what drill to do next, Sydnie was there, relying on herself to know and lead them. And when the season turned into the post-season, Sydnie was there, the lone Ranger, taking North to Regionals and, she desperately hoped, the State Championship.
After captaining her teammates for her last season, Sydnie traveled 80 miles to race without them at the Youngstown Regional Cross Country Tournament. It was her fourth chance to compete for a spot at the state meet and, as she was very aware, her final shot.
Sure it’s great to win ribbons, hear your name on the announcements, have other runners know who you are. But being exceptional can be very lonely, especially in high school.
Of course Syd has friends on her team who she cares about and who care about her, but none can pace her in workouts. None can commiserate about how to compete with other schools’ runners, let alone run as a pack with her to help the cause. They don’t understand how it feels when top runners from other schools scoff at the idea that a girl from North could beat them. And not one of them can challenge her to be better or know what it feels like to have the weight of an entire team, even an entire school on her shoulders. And when you’re exceptional, it can feel like everyone always expects you to effortlessly succeed.
Sydnie handles all this pressure very well. But she’s only human, and barely seventeen; we can’t expect any more from her than what any seventeen year old, even an exceptional one, could achieve in her circumstance. Of course we always hope for miracles, but we can’t expect them; not only is it unfair to her, it would be a set-up for disappointment.
Coach James keeps Sydnie’s spirits high before the start of the 2016 Youngstown Regional Cross Country Tournament in Youngstown, Ohio.
Early in the season, Syd gave a talk to her team, reaffirming her belief that the entire North girls team could advance to Regionals. And if the team could do that, then Sydnie certainly could make it to State. To believe her team could achieve that miracle, she had to believe that getting to State was as close to an inevitability as she could believe it to be. With each passing season of high school cross country, the hope for Syd’s State Championship race burned brighter, every year feeling more and more like destiny. By now, her senior year, that hope had grown so big and so strong that it began to take on the shape of an expectation.
If the post-season went exactly as it had in previous years, going to State would be well within Sydnie’s grasp. In previous years the state split the teams into four Regional Tournaments, each with approximately the same number of teams and runners. From each Region, the top four teams and any individual runners in the top 16 overall advanced to State. But that system meant sending some teams from the populous Northeast to the Northwest Region.
But this year Ohio’s high school athletics officials loaded up North’s District and Regional Tournaments with more of the state’s best teams. Instead of making some Northeastern teams travel so far away, the state decided to consolidate all the Northeast Ohio teams in one Region and advance more teams and more runners to balance things out. That meant in Sydnie’s race, the top eight teams and any individuals in the top 32 runners would advance to state.
Now, knowing that Sydnie came in 27th at Regionals last year, you might think this is great news! But while there were 16 more spots to go to State this year than last, there were at least twice as many speedy girls heading to Youngstown to snatch them up, the vast majority competing with full teams.
And if you look at the results from Regional races on any given year, you’ll see that very few individuals, girls racing without any teammates, advance. The vast majority of those that do qualify for State compete with their team, or at least alongside a teammate or two.
Sydnie (784) deep in the middle of the pack near the start of the 2016 Youngstown Regional Tournament.
Another thing to consider is how competitive Sydnie would be on her best day. On her best day, yes, she has a shot. On a day she feels confident and relaxed, on a day with good weather, on a day when everything lines up, yes, Sydnie could make it, as she could have any of the four years she raced there. But the hope all along this season was that Sydnie would have a breakthrough and race significantly faster than the year before. If she could do that, getting to State would be far less of a miracle.
But the fact is, there was no breakthrough. With a late start to her season and several setbacks along the way, she came within nine seconds of matching her 19:28 PR from last year, but didn’t quite beat it.
Given how the season unfolded, that is an accomplishment, and there’s no denying Sydnie is a great athlete. But at best, going into this Regionals, she had a slightly better shot at making it than she had her previous three years, based mostly on her experience and how badly she wanted it, rather than on improved ability. So, yes, making it to State was possible, but not even close to a sure thing.
On the starting line at the 2016 Youngstown Regional Tournament, Sydnie was one of 100 girls who had a shot at finishing in the top 32. Of those 100, it would come down to who had everything line up for her during the race.
BEYOND THE BULLSEYE
Obviously, making it to State would be a huge success, but for a State berth to be considered the only marker of Syd’s success would be cruel given her odds of achieving it were approaching miracle-level. In fact, just being there, just having a shot at State — not that we have to tell you this by now — for the fourth straight year is an incredible accomplishment.
Speaking of accomplishments, no matter how her season ended, Sydnie is leaving behind a much stronger group of runners on the North team than that which started the season. She inspired her younger teammates so much, especially sophomore Lydia, who, on her sixteenth birthday, boarded a bus at 9:30 a.m. to head across the state to warm-up with and cheer for Sydnie at her 3:00 p.m. race. Vidhi, Lydia, Calina, and Caitlin wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Sydnie’s North teammates cheering for her at the 2016 Youngstown Regional Tournament in Youngstown, Ohio. From left: Vidhi, Lydia, Calina, Caitlin, and Nick A.
As Sydnie went through her prerace routine with Lydia by her side she seemed nervous, but her bright smile broke through her usual stoicism far more than it had before Districts. Everyone else – her dad, her teammates, her coaches – seemed more anxious than she was. She wanted it bad, but, perhaps more than anyone around her, also seemed realistic in her expectations. If anyone knew how much the stars would have to align for this to happen, it was her.
At Districts last week, Sydnie employed the strategy she had practiced in the preceding races of going out at a controlled pace for the first mile and then working to pick runners off the second two miles, but this strategy only paid off with 18th place and barely advanced her to Regionals. Here, she and her coaches decided to try a more aggressive first mile, trying to stay in contact with 32nd place. Her goal was to be somewhere in the 40s through the mile before patiently moving up over the rest of the race. This risky strategy put Syd at the mercy of how fast those other girls ran the first mile. If it went too fast like in Strongsville she risked blowing up, but if she could hang on, it could pay off with a ticket to State.
The sun burned bright in the sky as Lydia wished her good luck and jogged away toward the team’s cheer spot. Mid-seventies and no cloud cover on October 22 came as quite a shock to runners who raced and trained during the previous week in mid-40s, rain, and wind. This race would favor those who run well in the heat.
Sydnie did a stride and shook out her legs while she stood on the line, alone. Then came the gun.
Sydnie charges up a hill during the first mile of the 2016 Youngstown Regional Tournament.
To execute the plan, she had to fight from the moment the gun sounded, but Sydnie was all in.
At about the half mile mark and she roared up a hill, passing girl after girl as she hunted for that 32nd place. She was right where she planned to be at the mile mark, but there was barely any room for error in a giant pack of runners vying for the same thirty-two spots. By halfway through the race, reality set in. The fast pace was taking its toll, perhaps some of the pressure too. She knew.
Near the two mile mark Vidhi, Lydia, Caitlin and Calina craned their necks toward the cascade of runners flying down the same steep hill Sydnie had eaten alive earlier. Calina, in charge of counting, shook her head as girl after girl flew by them. Then there she was, wrestling with a disappointment that registered on her face.
But soon, with only three-quarters of a mile to go, realizing it was her last chance to race cross country as a Ranger, she dug deep and began to fight.
Now it wasn’t about the thirty-second spot; now it was for herself, to prove who she really is. Sydnie is not a quitter. Sydnie is not a choker. She’s a young woman, a runner, a warrior. Here, at the end of her cross country career at North, Sydnie refused to let the moment be about fixating on the failure. Instead, she made the moment a fight for every last bit of success.
At the finish line, girl after girl hurdled herself over, some even lay on it, spent. Sydnie pushed herself as hard as she could in a tight pack of girls and teetered on her feet as she stepped over others lying on the ground. Then she succumbed, too, crumpling to her knees. Kneeling, but completely vertical, she looked at once exhausted and shell shocked.
She got up and walked further into the finishing area, still stepping over bodies, and found another girl from a neighboring school who was representing her team by herself too. They commiserated about what just happened to them for a moment, before the other girl left Sydnie alone once again, to sit and reflect and make sense of it all. Finally her dad made his way over to check on her and after a brief exchange where she communicated her disappointment succinctly, she grabbed her spikes and walked away. He called after her, caught her up in a hug, and there, finally, she cried.
Who wouldn’t? It was not the miracle, the happiest ending, the justice that it felt like she was due. Sydnie is a great kid, a hard worker, a leader, someone who does everything right and plays by the rules, and succeeds despite … everything. WHY couldn’t she get what she wanted? If anyone should, it’s her.
But that’s not how running works.
Last night the team in fancy street clothes assembled in the auditorium to celebrate their season. After the coaches handed out the awards, including the well-earned Legend Award to Sydnie, she took the floor to address the crowd including her teammates, coaches, and families. After thanking everyone for their support she said:
“Running isn’t just running. Running taught me to be the person I am today.”
The team greets Sydnie with cheers as she returns from the finish of the 2016 Youngstown Regional Tournament race.
Don’t fret! Their season may be over, but our series North is not! Stay tuned for another installment soon!
For past posts in this series, go here.
You can see the full results of the 2016 Youngstown Division I Girls Regional Tournament here