Hawken School junior Ella Gilson was going to have to come from behind if she wanted to defend her title during the Division II state cross-country championship Saturday at the National Trail Raceway in Hebron.
The Lady Hawk won her 2018 state title going away, leading the race from start to finish to best her nearest competition, Dayton Oakwood then-freshman Grace Hartman, by 18.5 seconds to secure her program’s first individual state gold.
But there’s no doubt that Hartman, now a sophomore, might have been considered the favorite this year after she defeated Gilson in a pair of head-to-head matchups during the regular season.
During the Saturday Night Lights championship race on Sept. 21 in Centerville, Hartman finished third in 17:31.1, while Gilson was fourth in 17:41.1.
And during the Midwest Meet of Champions meet on Sept. 28 at Hilliard Bradley High School, Hartman won the title in 18:03.4, while Gilson finished third in 18:11.2.
“Those two races helped me a lot,” Gilson said. “At Centerville, I was just trying to take it out with the pack and try to get a PR, because I knew if I stayed with the top people, I would get a really good time. It didn’t go as well as I wanted it to go, but I still had a season best there.
“And Midwest, my strategy was to take out the first mile at a little slower pace so I’d have more left at the end. Those two races definitely helped me figure out how I wanted to run for this state meet.”
With that experience running from behind, Gilson stayed on Hartman’s heels through the first mile of the state meet, splitting a 5:37.7, but the Lady Hawk fell back 3.3 seconds at the 2-mile mark.
Gilson kept in contact with Hartman over the next 1,000 meters, but still trailed by 2.6 seconds with 800 meters to go.
But that’s when Gilson turned on the jets, outrunning Hartman by 15.8 seconds in the final 800 meters to defend her title in 17:45.9, while Hartman finished runner-up in 17:58.6 and Lexington junior Halle Hamilton took third in 18:10.0 in the 176-runner field.
“In the last mile, I was just trying to get quicker and quicker with each step I was taking, just to close the gap as much as possible,” Gilson said. “Then I knew I would have a chance to dash to the finish.
“But as soon as I was within maybe two steps of (Hartman), I started sprinting because I knew if I was going to make a move, I’d have to make it then, because I didn’t know how she was going to react. But I knew I had enough energy to fight to the end. So, I just knew that was the perfect time.”
Across all three divisions, Gilson was the second-fastest runner at the state meet. Only Division I two-time state champion Taylor Ewert, a senior from Beavercreek, was faster.
The pressures associated with defending a state title can sometimes overwhelm a runner, especially in Gilson’s situation, when she trailed for 90 percent of the race, but the Lady Hawk said she still had a blast chasing that feat.
“It was definitely was a lot of fun, but I did feel the pressure coming into this meet because I knew it was going to be a very competitive race and it was going to be a fight until the very end,” Gilson said. “So, I was a little anxious coming in, but I was excited to race.
“And I actually felt amazing at the end, because it’s just that awesome feeling when you get that juice of adrenaline. I was just so happy. I couldn’t believe how that race was just so crazy. I was so overjoyed to just feel the pressure released and see all my friends cheering for me. It was the best feeling ever.”
Also representing the Lady Hawks at the big dance, junior Juliana Metz was chasing her third straight all-Ohio performance, after finishing 23rd as a freshman and 13th as a sophomore. But that’d be a tough row to hoe after she missed most of her training this autumn with an iron deficiency that she stabilized a little more than a month ago.
Metz still had her sights set on a top-10 state finish for Saturday, but, after placing 15th at the previous week’s regional competition, it would have been easy for doubters to tell her to get a ticket and wait in line with the others.
“I honestly kept saying it was my goal, but I don’t know if I even believed it myself,” Metz said. “Because looking at the times going into it, I was ranked I think 108th. And everyone at the meet went very fast, so I didn’t know if I could do it.”
Do it she did.
Metz got out the first mile with a 5:45.1 split and was in 14th, moved up to 13th by the 2-mile mark, picked off three more runners in the next 1,000 meters and then held on down the stretch to finish 10th overall in a lifetime best 18:44.0. She shed 36.6 seconds off her state performance from a year ago.
“I actually felt like I had a good rhythm the entire race,” she said. “That was the first time in a long time that I’ve had that. I think the competition really pushed me, and also the course was pretty flat and in great condition. All of it combined just really helped.
“And my goal the whole season was just to make it to state, so I never thought I’d get a best time. I think I have a lot more that I can give, and I’m really looking forward to track season and next year’s cross-country season.”
In other DII competition, West Geauga sophomore Grace Gyetko finished 54th overall in 19:43.7 during her state debut, while Wolverine junior Patrick Garrett finished 99th in 17:14.5 among 183 runners in his state debut.
In the team race, the Chagrin Falls girls took 13th out of 20 squads, coming just 20 points shy of a top-10 finish.
Scoring for the Lady Tigers, sophomore Rose Hoelzel finished 37th overall but 23rd in the team race in 19:27.6, while senior Hannah Clark took 29th in the team race in 19:35.6, sophomore Wren Opperman was 37th in 19:47.4, junior Madeleine Scott finished 97th in 21:13.9, and senior Eliza Clark took 101st in 21:16.3. Sophomore Claire Stinson, 21:18.9, and junior Tallulah Haskett, 22:49.7, rounded out Chagrin’s state squad.