A run for the ages

McDonald girls cross country team eyes another shot at state

Tribune Chronicle / John Vargo McDonald girls cross country coach Mike Richards, right, consoles runner Sela Jones after she didn’t finish where she’d like after Saturday’s Billy Goat Challenge. Jones is part of four dominant runners at McDonald, giving­ the Blue Devils one of the best teams in Division III this season.

McDONALD — Mike Richards sees his girls cross country team meander through McDonald.

Having cross country runners, distance runners for that matter, wander the village streets is not that unusual.

The love of sports is engrained in the fabric of McDonald, and distance running has a big part of that borderline obsession.

Mike Richards, a 1992 Maplewood High School graduate, appreciates the passion of the sport. He himself ran for former Rockets legend and coach Ted Rupe.

He tries to the keep up with his team during running, giving them words of encouragement along the way. It seems to be getting a little harder these days, especially with his top two — senior Malina Mitchell and sophomore Anna Guerra. Those two finished first and second at Saturday’s Billy Goat Challenge to lead the Blue Devils to the victory.

Tribune Chronicle / John Vargo McDonald’s Malina Mitchell runs during Saturday’s Billy Goat Challenge. She finished first to lead the Blue Devils to the Billy Goat Challenge girls varsity title. Mitchell, a senior, leads this year’s team.

“That last mile I jumped in with Malina and Anna,” Richards said. “They’re going pretty good, probably a 7:20 pace. I can barely talk. I don’t let them know that. I can hardly talk to them. I said that’s a good problem when your coach has a problem staying with you.

“I said part of it is because I’m old.”

McDonald, which won the 2014 Division III girls state cross country title, is one of the favorites for this year’s state title.

Sophomore Bella Wolford and Sela Jones round up the top four, ironically the same four who took fourth in this year’s D-III 4×800-meter relay in Columbus.

Seniors Alyssa Lynch and Claire Hoffman, sophomores Sophie Klase and Grace Kawecki and freshman Katie Gardner, to name a few, are vying for the five through 10 spots.

Tribune Chronicle / John Vargo McDonald’s Anna Guerra runs during Saturday’s Billy Goat Challenge. She finished first to lead the Blue Devils to the Billy Goat Challenge girls varsity title. Guerra is one of many sophomores to lead this cross country team.

“Our top four is in the best shape I’ve seen a top four in a long time,” Richards said. “I think we’re about 10 deep. Anybody from my fifth to my 10th could be in my top seven this year.”

For a Division III school, McDonald has plenty of depth.

“We could have 10 of the top 20 in the county on our team,” Richards said. “That’s not against anybody in the county. Even if you’re the 10th girl on this team, you’re a quality runner. I know it gets tough for them to think, ‘I’m 10th on the team. I must not be very good.’ “

This year’s sophomore class is the heart of the team.

“It is very exciting to be part of such a strong team,” Mitchell said. “I know we can accomplish great things this year if we continue to work hard. The sophomores have an extremely talented class, all very hardworking.”

Last year, these freshmen were thinking they couldn’t run with Mitchell. Now, they are running alongside the senior who won the Billy Goat Challenge on her 18th birthday.

“They made the realization that I can run near Malina. I can run with the top competition,” Richards said. “Last year at this time, as freshmen, they were talking about, ‘Can I finish a 5K?’ They looked at Malina as an untouchable force that nobody could run with. I think now, they still look up to her. It helps Bella and Sela and pulls them up.”

Did Richards eventually catch up to Mitchell and Guerra? Well …

“Coach Richards says he runs with everybody on the team, but he actually bikes with a lot of us while we run,” Guerra said.