Some funny guy started shouting, “Sixteenth. Sixteenth. You’re 16th,” as Gilmour Academy senior Bryson Simpson was on the final stretch to the finish line during the Division III region cross-country meet on Saturday in Boardman.

The Lancer harrier was chasing an individual state berth in the aftermath of graduations to Gilmour’s top three runners from last year’s state team, but it was going to take a top-16 finish among 104 runners on the 5-kilometer course for Simpson to keep his season alive.

Simpson knew he was in better position that 16th in the home stretch, but distance running has a funny way of playing tricks on an athlete’s mind.

“Someone yelled, ‘You’re 16th,’ and I’m like, ‘No I’m not,’” Simpson said. “And then I was like, ‘Wait, I can’t second-guess myself.’ And then I just started sprinting like I never have before on the final stretch, because my heart literally stopped. I was so scared.

“I was like, ‘No, I’m not, but I don’t have time to check.’ So, I just literally ran toward the finish line without any questions.”

The joke was on the bystander, however, as Simpson finished seventh overall in 17:00.48 to secure his individual ticket to the big dance with a 26.99-second cushion.

Simpson finished 52nd in the region a year ago but was the Lancers’ No. 4 runner during an 11th-place team showing at the big dance. He also scored on Gilmour’s 2017 state team that finished ninth.

But when he returns to state competition this Saturday at the National Trail Raceway in Hebron, he’ll be the lone Lancer on the course.

“It still kind of feels unreal,” Simpson said. “We had three seniors last year who basically carried us to the state meet the past two seasons. So, it was basically left to me and two other seniors from the boys team to step up, but I didn’t think I had a chance.

“I just knew I had to try my hardest, win or lose. And it was pretty hard. I mean, obviously every race is pretty hard, but this race in particular, it was just a mental battle I had to face. Every time I said, ‘Oh, I need to slow down,’ I was like, ‘No, c’mon. Go,’ and I went faster instead.”

In the girls race, meanwhile, Gilmour Academy scored 98 points from its front five runners to finish region runner-up among 14 teams.

The Lady Lancers, who entered the race ranked No. 13 in the state coaches poll, actually tied No. 10-ranked Maplewood, but Maplewood took the team trophy by way of a sixth-runner tiebreaker. State No. 9-ranked McDonald finished third in the region with 110 points.

Nonetheless, the Gilmour girls did more than what it took to secure their program’s 10th straight trip to the big dance, despite graduated their top two runners from last year’s state team that finished seventh in Ohio.

“It meant the world to all of us,” Gilmour junior Caitrina Barton said of securing another state ticket. “We had a lot of new girls join the team this season, after we lost two of our really big runners, like my sister and Katie Engle. So, seeing everyone work really hard this season and just the enthusiasm and our bonding, this is just a really nice way to cap off the season.”

Barton led the Lady Lancers on Saturday by clocking 20:24.66 to finish eighth in the team race and 11th overall in the region, securing that coveted top-16 finish by 17.7 seconds.

“I was trying to be patient during the race and just try to move my way up,” Barton said. “I didn’t want to start up way too hard, because in races like this everyone gets almost too excited at the beginning. So, you kind of want to run a little smarter than you would hard with a more strategic race.”

Also scoring for Gilmour, freshman Kaitlin Rulison finished 12th in the team race in 20:48.60, sophomore Mary Lombardo was 14th in 20:57.30, senior Jorja Hlifka took 23rd in 21:28.63 and sophomore Mia Polisena finished 41st in 21.59.71, while sophomores Nina Padanilam, 24:14.65, and Ava Moe, 24:33.92, rounded out the Lady Lancers’ varsity squad.

Barton, Lombardo, Hlifka and Polisena all have state experience from a year ago.

“I’m pretty excited, because the past two years at the state meet, unfortunately I was injured both times,” Barton said. “But I’m going in pretty healthy this year, knock on wood that it stays that way. And the state meet is a really good experience with the whole team getting excited and all amped-up for it. I just want it to be really fun for all of them.”

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