Cross country squads to compete at State

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By Scott Akanewich

After everything, it’s finally here.

All the early-morning practices, all the grueling training runs, all the pain and suffering, all the injuries and all the trials and tribulations have at long last led the Liberty Hill cross country squad to where it wanted to be all along.

The Class 4A state championships, with opportunities for both teams to win titles.

However, for the Panthers’ seniors, it will definitely be the last-chance saloon as far as their respective high school careers go and the final time they will be able to compete together, which is something that makes the situation a mixed bag of emotions, said senior Hannah Johnson.

“Getting to state is really exciting, but I’m not ready for it to end,” she said. “Running has been such a huge part of my life for so long.”

Fellow senior Kevin Berber also realizes the significance of the event beyond its importance as a competition.

“I’m definitely going to be nervous,” said Berber. “But, it’s kind of sad because it’s going to be my last high school race and I’ve been running with these guys for three years. We’ve built relationships you can’t get anywhere else.”

According to Johnson, the emotional roller coaster began when the results were posted at the regional meet in Corpus Christi, with the girls winning and punching their ticket to the big time.

“All of us ran over to where they put up the results,” said Johnson. “When I saw we were first, I looked at Madison (Sears) and we just started crying and screaming.”

Johnson said she shares a special bond with fellow senior Sears.

“We’ve been competing against each other neck-and-neck since we were in seventh grade,” she said. “We’re running buddies, so it was super-emotional and I had a happy heart.”

Berber cited a similar relationship with senior Gabe Diaz, as the duo have been each other’s biggest competition within the team.

“Gabe’s been like a brother to me,” he said. “There’s always been a rivalry between us, but that’s what we need to drive each other to be better.”

An interesting aspect of the dynamic between the two and the roles they play as senior leaders can be described in simple terms, said Berber.

“Gabe’s the bad cop and I’m the good cop,” he said, with a laugh. “But, really we have to be leaders not only as seniors, but because we’re faster.”

But, that leadership goes beyond race day, said Berber.

“Even at practice, we need to lead by example,” he said. “Making sure everyone does things like drink enough water and eat right.”

Now, the pair has led their teammates back to a place they reached last season – the culminating event in Round Rock on Saturday.

“Our first goal is to get top three and finish on the podium,” said Berber.

Johnson said the anxiety level as the big race approaches is palpable, but that she and her teammates simply need to be able to channel their emotions properly not only for peak performance, but to be able to soak in and enjoy the atmosphere.

“Sure, it’s nerve-wracking,” she said. “But all we can do is the best we can. We’re going to have our last moments together as a team, but we have to do what we’re best at, stay in the moment and not let our emotions get in the way.”

Reaching the promised land of the state meet is a proper reward for all the hard work that goes into her sport all season long, said Johnson.

“Some days, you’re just super tired and don’t want to get up for practice, you just want to lay in bed,” she said. “But, once you can push past that wall in your head, it’s exciting to see the results from all our hard work because it all makes us stronger in the end.”

Ayanna Donwerth and freshman Zaila Smith are the top guns in the Liberty Hill lineup, so when the runners break from the line in Round Rock, there’s a definite strategy in place for the rest of the Panthers, said Johnson.

“The start is critical because you don’t want to get boxed in and have to work around people,” she said. “What I do after that is pick a person who’s a little faster than me and try to keep up, then after I pass her, I’ll keep trying to pick off one more at a time. If I have a kick at the end, great.”

Johnson finished 19th at the regional race in a time of 12:41.61, which was a new personal best and the fastest she had run a race since her freshman season, a result that was good enough for fourth on the Panthers, helping them to a team total of 76, which easily outpaced runner-up Bandera, who could muster only 156.

On the boys’ side, Berber finished 20th in 17:23.68, which was also fourth among his teammates, and helped Liberty Hill to a second-place showing as junior Isaiah De La Garza crossed the line as the lead Panther runner in ninth with a time of 17:03.50.

De La Garza is usually in the mix of the Panthers’ numbers three, four and five runners behind Diaz and Berber, but that wasn’t the case on this day, something that Berber didn’t expect, he said.

“Isaiah surprised me with what he did,” said Berber. “I looked up ahead of me and saw a guy in purple and said to myself it couldn’t be him, but then he rounded a corner and could see it was. He ran one of his best races.”

Liberty Hill head Coach Kim Holt said the regional results will bode well for her squad’s fortunes at the state event.

“The fact our girls won by so much – 80 points, was surprising, but that gives them a lot of confidence moving forward,” said Holt, who has now presided over five girls’ regional championships during her tenure as coach. “The boys have had better races, but that will just motivate them to do better.”

Holt was pleased with the performance put on by De La Garza, she said.

“It was awesome to see Isaiah up there,” said Holt. “For him, it’s definitely a confidence-builder and I hope he can do it again.”

Holt added results like these at season’s end are always very gratifying for her as a coach.

“For me, it’s always great to see them do well and reach their goals,” she said. “It’s really exciting to see how happy they are.”

Johnson said a big part of the role she and fellow seniors Sears and Lindsee Miller play is to ensure certain standards are adhered to by the younger members of the program.

“I guess I feel pressure to teach the underclassmen the traditions of what we do,” she said. “But, it’s our job to teach the people below us.”

So, what are some of those hallowed Purple-and-Gold traditions?

“Stuff like our team chant we do before a race and also our prayer we say,” said Johnson. “We also sing the school song on the bus and there’s also the Kim Holt fan club.”

Johnson said a visit to the beach was in order after the team’s success in Corpus Christi.

“We all swam into the ocean and it was a huge bonding experience for us – it’s something we’ll remember for a long time,” she said. “We’ve all worked really hard to get to this point.”

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