Auburn High girls’ cross country wins State, boys finish second

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Back row from left: boys team Head Coach Tony Benitez, Nathan Stewart, Aubrey Lake, Stewart Brown, Mark Foster, Jeffrey Blair, Thomas Parnell, Maxwell Hardin, Layton Spates, Alex Lincoln-Velez, girls team Head Coach Olivia Tofani. Front row: Myla Ragan, Abby Merner, Sally Owen, EV McGowan, Stella Stewart, Lessye Gray, Elizabeth Nist , Sangie Lincoln-Velez, Mary Elizabeth Hadley and Liviy Tole. Not pictured: Sam Sexton.

By Wil Crews
sportscrews@opelikaobserer.com

The Auburn High girls’ cross country team won state and the boys took second in the AHSAA Class 7A State Championship on Saturday at the Oakville Indian Mounds Cross Country Course in Danville, Alabama.

This is the fourth straight State Championship that the girls team has won.

“The results blew me away,” said Auburn High girls cross country team head coach Olivia Tofani. “I knew they had the ability to win their fourth state championship in a row, but the individual successes and improvements for each girl on that team were incredible.”

Junior Sangie Lincoln-Velez brought home a first place gold, running a 18:29.97 — a comfortable six seconds ahead of second place. And her teammate, seventh grader Abby Merner, finished third, running a 18:36.45.

Despite some last minute additions to the roster, the rest of the team did enough to best the runners up, Hoover.

“We had battled some injuries in the two weeks leading up to the state meet and changes had to be made to our roster, yet the girls handled each change with positivity and a strong trust in one another,” Tofani said. “On Saturday, they trusted their training and raced for one another.”

Coming up just short of first place behind Huntsville, Auburn High’s boys cross country team head coach Tony Benitez said he didn’t want his team to feel disappointed in their result.

“The boys know I love to win, but I told them after the race that it was the best second place finish I’ve ever been a part of,” Benitez said. “We truly celebrated as if we had won.”

Top earners for the boys were Stewart Brown, who finished second, running a 15:23.43, and Maxwell Hardin, who placed fourth, running a 15:50.67.

“I told the boys the night before the race that just getting to the starting line in one piece was a small miracle,” Benitez added. “God richly blessed us with an incredible performance when it mattered the most.  For a senior-laden team, it was a great way to end the season.”

2020 has been a unique and challenging year for everyone. Cross Country is no exception, and Saturday’s meet marked the end of an unforgettable season.

“This has been the most challenging year I’ve ever experienced in coaching and I know the boys would say the same regarding how it affected our preparation throughout the season,” Benitez said. “The sport is hard enough from a physical and mental standpoint, so, when you add the COVID variable into the equation, it makes it even tougher. The boys had to be resilient and adapt throughout the entire training process to reach the goals they had set for themselves as a team.”

Tofani is proud of how her team finished the year for similar reasons.

“We knew this season would have its challenges since we had five seniors graduate from our team last year, all of whom are now competing at Division 1 colleges, but COVID-19 definitely presented a new set of obstacles,” Tofani said. “They were so happy and thankful to even have the opportunity to run and race this season that they took each restriction, sacrifice or change in routine without complaint. Competing in COVID also required these girls to think through decisions they made outside of practice and how those could impact the team, especially if they were to put themselves in a situation of possible exposure. They made those sacrifices and kept in mind the big picture for the team, of making it to the state meet together.

“I am so proud of how my girls finished at the state meet. We have a young team, half of which competed in their first state meet this weekend, and in a sport like cross country, racing is as much a mental feat as it is a physical one. I was so impressed by the way our younger runners confidently stepped up to this level of competition guided by the leadership of their more seasoned teammates.”

The rest of the boys’ team finished as follows: Mark Foster 14th, Thomas Parnell 25th, Nathan Stewart 33rd, Jeffrey Blair 56th, Alex Lincoln-Velez 57th, Sam Sexton 65th, Layton Spates 79th and Aubrey Lake 85th.

The rest of the girls’ team finished as follows: Liviy Tole 12th, Stella Stewart 22nd, EV McGowan 24th, Lessye Gray 29th, Elizabeth Nist 32nd, Myla Ragan 35th, Mary Elizabeth Hadley 78th and Sally Owen 105th.

Congratulations to Auburn High cross country on a great 2020 season!

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