There were still six harriers hanging around up front at the 2-mile mark, but really only two of them stood a shot at the title during the girls Division II state cross-country championship on Saturday at Fortress Obetz.
The front six girls were only separated by 6.8 seconds at that point in the race, with Lexington senior Halle Hamilton in the lead, but Hawken School senior Ella Gilson and Dayton Oakwood junior Grace Hartman knew they were each other’s biggest competition.
That trio went one-two-three a year ago, with Gilson coming from three seconds behind in the final mile to win her second straight title, while Hartman was the 2019 runner-up and Hamilton took third.
With three more girls in company two-thirds of the way through the state race on Saturday, Gilson and Hartman finally made their moves with about 800 meters to go to separate from the rest of the pack.
“I felt pretty good during the whole entire race, and my strategy was pretty much just kind of to hang back a little bit and stay with the pack for the first 2, 2 1/2 miles and then pick it up in the end, because I knew that’s just how the feel of states usually is,” Gilson said. “I still want to get good times, and my time was good, but I’m just more concerned about the place.
“So, I knew I could stay with the top people for most of the race and play off how other people were running, because and I knew I had a good kick at the end.”
Finishing state runner-up to Gilson the past two seasons, Oakwood’s Hartman knew she had a good kick to the finish too, as the pair battled stride for stride in the final half mile with surges and counter surges.
Gilson entered the final 100 meters a body length behind before catching Hartman with about 50 meters to go, but Hartman managed to hold off Gilson by 0.1 second on the 5-kilometer course, 18:04.1 to 18:04.2.
“I would say that we both kind of had the same strategy,” Gilson said. “We were just playing off what each other were doing. So, whenever one of us would make a move, I would kind of follow her and vice versa. But I would say coming down the final hill to the finish is when we started to separate ourselves.”
Gilson finished her decorated high school cross-country career as a four-time all-Ohioan, two-time state champion and, on Saturday, a state runner-up.
While the Lady Hawk has gotten the better of Hartman the past two seasons, including on the state track in the spring, she wasn’t complaining about a state runner-up finish among 177 of the best harriers in Ohio.
“It was a crazy finish,” Gilson said. “It went by so fast. On my part, I wish I would have kicked it in a little bit earlier, but I thought it was a good finish and a great race.
“I’m super proud, and I couldn’t have asked for a better cross-country experience at Hawken. I had amazing team members and really great coaches. And I just had a really great high school experience and am really proud of all the hard work I put in over the past four years. It’s crazy that coming into high school I wasn’t even going to run. So, these past couple years have just changed who I am as an athlete so much. I just really enjoyed the journey.”
Back in the fall of 2017, when Gilson finished third as a freshman at the regional meet to punch her first ticket to states, she said she wasn’t necessarily a runner but rather a swimmer.
Gilson said she arrived at Hawken with swimming on her mind as an athlete. After all, the Lady Hawks were coming off their 19th straight state championship, and Gilson was good enough to finish on the state podium in the 200-yard freestyle and 100 backstroke her rookie season.
But after going on to grab a pair of state runner-up performances in the 1,600-meter and 800-meter runs that following spring track season, and then returning to win a state cross-country crown the fall of her sophomore year, Gilson started to see running more and more in her future.
“By the end of my sophomore year is when I decided I was going to run in college over swimming,” said Gilson, who committed last month to continue her cross-country and track careers next year at Harvard University.
“But I still love swimming so much, and I think they’re both amazing cross-trainers for each other,” she said. “So, I’m planning on going back to swim practice tomorrow and getting right back into it. I’m excited to have a nice, long, strong last swim season and stuff.
“But I already talked to my coach for next year in college about continuing my swimming training, so it’s definitely still going to be a part of my life. But, yeah, I think I would consider running to be more of my first sport now.”
In addition to Gilson, the Hawken girls finished 14th as a team at the state cross-country meet on Saturday, moving up two places from what coaches predicted in the pre-state poll.
Also scoring for the Lady Hawks, senior Juliana Metz took 54th in the team race in 20:34.9, freshman Elena Padley was 73rd in 21:05.8, freshman Camilla Mari finished 88th in 21:24.6, and freshman Sofija Boyd took 115th in 22:40.7, while senior Lena Sylvan, 22:46.1, and junior Gaby Montero, 23:13.6, also represented Hawken.
And on the boys’ side, Hawken freshman Nick Garcia-Whitko made his state debut by finishing 67th in 17:08.3 among 168 harriers in his Division II race.
“I’m really, really proud of my team, and it was really fun being down there together,” Gilson said. “We had a really fun time hanging out, and it’s just a completely different experience with your teammates. So, I’m really happy that I got to have that for my senior year.”