By Jason Della Rosa

By Jason Della Rosa

Herald Democrat

For many of the area’s standout cross-country runners, the waiting was the hardest part.

It wasn’t getting up well before school started to practice. It wasn’t the hundreds of miles covered in all those practices. It was the fact that after all that effort, they had to wait the entire year to get back to this point.

Nearly two dozen area runners will head to Old Settlers Park in Round Rock on Saturday for the state meet after standout performances in the regional races held last weekend. The Class 1A girls race is at 9 a.m. followed by the 1A boys at 9:20 a.m., the 2A girls at 9:50 a.m., the 2A boys at 10:10 a.m., the 3A girls at 10:40 a.m. and the 3A boys at 11:10 a.m.

The Melissa Lady Cardinals are at state for the third straight year, the second consecutive appearance in 3A. Melissa was the 2A state runner-up in 2011 before taking ninth last fall.

Senior Ashley New led Melissa with a third-place finish at the Region II meet 11:49.95. Classmate Jackii Thomas was 13th in 12:11.64, followed by Kambri Gabel (12:27.48) in 20th, Sophie Bennett (12:32.98) at 23rd, Kailey Burton (12:38.35) in 28th, Megan Brown (13:12.27) at 54th and Ambriana Ricks (15:16.11) in 146th.

"Last year our goal was to make it to state. We had never run against 3A runners before," Thomas said. "This year it’s medal at state. We know we can be a championship team."

The Lady Cardinals came out of a competitive region with Kaufman, Decatur and Melissa ranked as three of the top four teams in the state.

"We have a real indication of who we’re competing with," said New, who finished 13th at state last year. "We were pretty confident we would make it. It’s our last chance. At the end of the day you just run."

Melissa junior Trace Greer will compete in the 3A boys race after a 10th-place finish at regionals.

Anna sophomore Courtnie Hughes was the 3A Region II runner-up to Carrollton Ranchview’s Paulena Lynch with a time of 11:47.22 after recovering from an early-season injury that sidelined her for six weeks.

"Coming back I was the underdog," Hughes said. "I wasn’t thinking negatively. I had two months to prepare."

She heads back to state, where she finished 16th as a freshman, with a better understanding of what to expect this time.

"I’m familiar with the course so I feel like that’s a benefit this time," Hughes said. "I hope to get top three. That’s kinda my goal right now, that 11:30 range."

Van Alstyne senior Evan McQuirk returns to state with his sister, Molly, newcomer Hannah Taylor and the title as the Region II individual champion with a time of 16:15.95 — almost 17 seconds ahead of Edgewood’s Trent Phelps.

"It was a great feeling. I was able to come out with the victory," McQuirk said. "You pull away in the middle so when the last part of the race comes they have nothing left to beat you."

McQuirk finished 46th at the state meet as a junior after being the region runner-up but ran the race with a stress fracture in his left foot that hampered his time.

"Once the doctor said I couldn’t damage it anymore, I was going to run at state," he said.

His district-winning time of 15:44 is his best effort and since McQuirk has the top qualifying time he is anticipating a much better showing in his final high school race.

"Hopefully I’m going to win. It would be very, very special," McQuirk said. "That has been my mindset since I started training. I’m going to train to be a champion."

Both Taylor, a freshman, and McQuirk, a junior, had top-eight finishes in the region and will have some local competition from Leonard sophomore Chelsea Brockus, who was the region runner-up in 12:06.56. At state a year ago Brockus was 26th while McQuirk finished 28th.

"This year I’m trying to get an all-state title and make the top 10," said McQuirk, who posted a personal best of 12:13. "Last year I did not think I was going to make it. When I got there I was in the thrill of the moment."

Taylor saw her time at regionals drop by almost 30 seconds to 12:30.26 and help push her to the front of a pack fighting for the final spots at state.

"In the end it was really intense. The times were really close," Taylor said. "I really wanted to make regionals and then once I made regionals I was pushing for state."

Another newcomer to state is the Whitesboro boys, who placed third at the regional meet.

"When we run Saturday, I know it’s going to be close as long as we run our best," senior Cody Woolsey said. "Even though it’s higher stakes, a bigger stage and it’s my last meet, I’m anxious to get started."

Grant Butts led the way with a fifth-place finish in a time of 16:54.71 and Nic Butts was right behind in sixth in 17:06.97.

"When I finished, I automatically turned around to look at my teammates because I was right behind Grant," Nic Butts said. "We want to do our best for the seniors."

Austin Pulley (18:02.41) was 15th, Andrew Knowlton was 48th in 18:51.48 and Noel Galan (18:52.46) was a spot back, Drew Chandley (19:21.74) was 67th and Woolsey (20:53.38) was 124th.

"The gap between us and fourth was pretty big," Grant Butts said. "The gap between us and second was pretty close so we didn’t think we had to worry."

In Class 1A, a pair of Trenton seniors will compete at state for the first time. Tyler Connelly was seventh at the Class 1A Region III race in 17:48.8 while Holland claimed the last spot at 10th in 17:55.1.

Blue Ridge junior Natalie Pyle advanced to state with a seventh-place finish in the girls race in 13:09.1.