Due to COVID protocols, the 2020 OHSAA Division III state cross-country meet did not allow for any crowds. Then Hawken freshman Nick Garcia-Whitko only qualified as an individual so it was a lonely race for him as he placed 67th.
For the 2021 state meet, sophomore Garcia-Whitko was not by himself. He raced in front of a roaring crowd and captured ninth place to make it to the podium with a time of 16:00.1 and led the Hawks to 13th place as a team at Fortress Obetz last Saturday afternoon.
“It was an entirely different experience,” he said. “First I had my whole team with me. Before the race I was a lot happier and in a better mindset with my team. We were all getting hyped and it really improved my mental aspect of the game and also just made the experience a lot more comfortable.”
Hawken’s front five logged a 9-80-87-116-153 finish to record a team total of 306 points.
The Hawken sophomore stayed with the lead pack after the first 450 meters. He continued to stay in the front pack at the one-mile mark as only a full two seconds separated the top 15 spots.
“The first mile I call it the euphoric mile,” he explained. “Because of all the crowd. You’re just starting to get focused with all the adrenaline and that usually lasts me an entire mile. My goal was to just stick with the top pack, try to hold in on the second mile and try and catch some people in the third mile and finish strong.”
He made up some ground at the second mile as he moved into ninth place with a time of 10:06.3. At that point, three runners created some distance at the top of the pack with five seconds separating the third runner and fourth runner.
Garcia-Whitko couldn’t make up any ground in the last mile but fended off the advances of Watterson senior Chris Kubatko to lock up a ninth place finish. It was a goal of his to crack the top ten this year.
“I knew I had it in me,” he said. “I really wanted to get a medal. I just wanted to work my socks off and eventually just be on the podium and know what it felt like.”
Garcia-Whitko finished at 16:00.1, a personal best.
Prior to the state meet, he had not placed outside the top five in any meet during the regular season or the postseason.
Coach Jessica Lariccia remarked what a different runner he had become after his freshman season.
“He’s a tough runner,” she said. “He’s mentally tough and knew he wanted to be top ten so when he puts his mind to something he reaches it.”
Garcia-Whitko split time between soccer and cross-country last year but steered more towards soccer. He decided after his freshman campaign he wanted to change his priorities and devote more time to cross-country.
“I love soccer and I also love cross-country,” he said. “But nothing beats the feeling I get after I run a good race that I’m proud of. That’s just one of the most incredible feelings in the world to me.”
Meanwhile on the girls’ side, Hawken freshman Brielle Collins capped off her debut season of cross-country by capturing 14th place with a personal record of 18:46.4.
It marked the highest finish for a Hawks’ freshman female runner since Ella Gilson took 15th place during the 2017 state meet.
She has filled a void in the program left by the graduation of multiple seniors such Gilson and Juliana Metz
“All of the seniors who left last year were amazing runners,” said Collins. “I wanted to do them proud by keeping the team strong.”
Collins was the lone representative for the girls’ cross-country team as her team missed out being a state qualifier by just one spot after snagging seventh place at the Division II regional meet on Oct. 30 at Youngstown Boardman.
The Hawks’ freshman started off in 15th place at the one-mile mark with a time of 5:44.4. She passed five runners at the second-mile mark to grab ninth place recording a time of 11:49.2.
At that point, defending 2020 state champion Grace Hartman from Oakwood had a commanding lead as a full 30 seconds separated her and second place.
Collins lost some ground in the final mile and dropped to 14th place but still finished strong to snag a spot on the podium and set a personal best.
“From that second mile I tried to hold the pace that I could,” she explained. “I went a little bit too fast but tried to hold it as steady as I could.”
Collins poised to lead the Hawks for the next several years and is planning for a return trip to Columbus but hopes her entire team will be racing alongside her next fall.