By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
For three decades, there’s one thing that keeps Stillwater cross country coach Dan Zeroski coming back each season — the unknown.
Typically, the unknown has been positive for the Pioneers and Lady Pioneers. More than a few times, Stillwater has surprised a lot of people and exceeded expectations.
While both Stillwater squads exceeded expectations during Saturday’s Class 6A regional meet at Oral Roberts University, it was a different unknown that ended Stillwater’s team season in regionals.
A day before he was supposed to race in the No. 4 spot for the Pioneers, John Saunders was injured in a motorcycle accident coming from the team’s pasta dinner — his leg swelling up to the point where he could barely walk, let alone run.
“We don’t ever use any excuses,” Zeroski said. “We always play with the hand we’re dealt. That’s what we were dealt (Saturday) morning and we went and did what we could.”
In fact, they did more.
Even without their fourth runner, the senior leadership of Zach Porterfield, Connor Akin and Nathan Herrmann almost willed Pioneers to state.
But as Zeroski’s initial projections indicated, the Pioneers fell just short, finishing eighth with 208 points, 45 points short of Bishop Kelley, the final state qualifier.
“Both groups were really dedicated,” Zeroski said. “Their goal was to make it to state, but it just didn’t come out that way this year.”
It wasn’t for lack of effort.
Even when things got tough during the middle of the race, both teams kept fighting — not only for themselves, but also for their fallen comrade Saunders.
“We knew we were right on the edge of making it and not making it going into regionals,” Zeroski said. “We knew everybody had to have the perfect race to get in, and everybody did run well. But the other teams just ran better.”
The heartbreak didn’t end there Saturday. Jay Ogle missed qualifying for state by a second, losing to Bartlesville’s Archer Bennett at the line. Senior Catherine Petty also barely missed making state for the Lady Pioneers, finishing 50th with a time of 14:04 — seven seconds behind the final individual qualifier.
But for all the bad luck Stillwater experience, there was at least a little good that came out of the regional.
Porterfield and Bo Frohock each earned a spot as individuals at the state meet, along with the lone Lady Pioneer representative Elise Rackley.
Porterfield led the Pioneers, finishing 15th overall with a time of 17:23, while Frohock was 28th with a time of 17:51, 16 seconds ahead of Ogle. Akin was 62nd with a time of 18:57 and Herrmann rounded out the scoring by finishing 64th with a time of 19:00.
“It’s great to have them in,” Zeroski said. “It would have been nice to have everybody in, but that’s how it goes.”
Rackley finished 36th overall with a time of 13:43, followed by Petty and Angela Fitch, who finished 56th with a time of 14:15. Addy Evans took 68th with a time of 14:43 and Jordan LeBeaux was 71st with a time of 14:58 to round out the scoring for Stillwater, which finished 10th with 281 points.
“We knew right where we stood that we had to beat some teams to get in, and we did that,” Zeroski said. “All the kids ran well. It’s just some other teams ran better.”
Stillwater may not be bringing back a team trophy from Edmond next Saturday — or even an individual title — but there will certainly be a Stillwater presence. After all, the boys and girls will both be looking to capture academic state titles.
“The boys won it the last two years,” Zeroski said. “I’m not sure if they’re going to win it again this year, but the girls have a really good chance to win an academic state title.”