Freshman year feels like an eternity for senior women’s cross country runner Mary Beth Cunningham.
“Four years is a whirlwind in my head,” the Grayson County, Virginia native said.
Indeed, four years is a long time for a college student to grow, whether it’d be academically, athletically or socially. Cunningham and classmates Katie Jones, Malarie Yoder, Elaina Spahmer and Kathryn Thompson have gone through all of these changes, and as they’ve changed, so has the balance of power in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference.
Saturday, the five senior women’s cross country runners have a chance to win their fourth PAC championship.
But before they could start their streak, the Yellow Jackets had to end another one. Four years ago, the Jackets were the bridesmaids of the Presidents’ Athletic Conference. Grove City had a conference championship streak dating back to the Bush administration– H.W., not W– and eight times between 2005 and 2015, Waynesburg took silver, watching Grove City take the coveted gold.
It was only a matter of time before the Jackets put Grove City’s streak to bed, and in 2016, they did it.
In 2017, they did it again.
Last year, the Jackets, beat up by injuries, superglued themselves together and barley completed a three-peat, edging Grove City by three points.
Of the 23 members on this year’s squad, only five have seen the transformation of Waynesburg from bridesmaids to brides from the first title to the third.
Of the five women who are a little more than 3.5 miles away from leaving their cross country careers unbeaten at the PAC championships, none have stood out individually. They’ve watched older stars; the Latimer twins, Katie and Emily, who qualified for nationals in 2016, Julie Gerber, who preceded them the year before, and Angie Marchetti, who placed first individually in the 2018 championship win. Now, this year’s seniors are in the process of watching some younger stars begin to shine, particularly Waynesburg’s top runner, Aubrey Wingert, who is a sophomore and a favorite to take first Saturday. Although there are no individual gems, Hardie knows how valuable his senior class is.
“This group never had that star,” Hardie said. “But they always were in the mix. So they had somebody that was in that top seven to 10 that was always right there. They understood their role that they were going to have to fight and battle for a spot. None of it was given to them.”
Each senior has a story, and four of the five have had their careers significantly hindered at some point by fate.
The “Sassy Little Redhead.”
This is what classmate Malarie Yoder used to describe Cunningham. Cunningham had Waynesburg on her radar early on after Hardie saw her run at the Virginia state tournament.
All kidding aside, Cunningham’s work ethic is what sticks out to Yoder.
“She’s very determined to do everything the way that she knows it should be done,” Yoder said. “She is someone that won’t take failure. She won’t take it. She just won’t handle it.” Unfortunately, disappointment is something Cunningham has had to deal with frequently in her time with the cross country and track programs.
The sport has brought her physical pain; she’s battled tendonitis for two years and missed most of the cross country season last year because of knee problems. It’s also been a source of emotional disappointment for Cunningham. In three years, she’s never run at regionals. Yet, at every regional race, there she was, cheering her teammates on, and not allowing any room for bitterness. Cunningham’s story is similar to that of her classmates. She, like the other four, knows she doesn’t need personal glory to be a key cog in the machine the women’s cross country program has turned into.
“Even if you’re not [a top 10 runner] or you’re not top 15. You have a place on this team,” Cunningham said. “We love each other, we care about each other. We’re going to support you no matter how good of a day we were having or how bad of a day we were having. It just really helps to build the team atmosphere more.”
When it comes to deciding who to pick for regionals, Cunningham is on the bubble. Elaina Spahmer, however, knows she will not be selected.
Spahmer has never been one of Waynesburg’s top runners and has never pretended to be.
For Hardie, however, Spahmer is the spark plug of the team’s energy.
“What she brings every day are energy and positivity,” Hardie said. “She breaks us down every huddle. So at the end when we do the cheer, Elaina does it. She just has this really loud voice.”
Spahmer feels one of her main responsibilities is to never allow any of her teammates, regardless of where they are on the leaderboard, to feel obsolete.
“I think that my role on the team is to kind of remind girls who aren’t in the top ten, remind some of the girls who don’t facilitate points for the team that what they do matters, and the work that they put in matters as well,” she said.
The “Sweetest Human on Earth”
Perhaps more so than any of her classmates, Yoder’s athletic career at Waynesburg has been an odyssey.
Freshman and sophomore year were a blast. Yoder was an all-conference selection twice, and as a sophomore, she placed 12th overall at the PAC championships and was one of seven Jacket runners that went to regionals.
Then, junior year happened. Yoder went from a top 15 runner in the conference as an underclassman to 84th as an upperclassman. Senior year hasn’t gone well, either. Yoder hasn’t been one of Waynesburg’s seven scorers in any of Waynesburg’s five meets in 2019.
Back problems stemming from a severe case of Pneumonia sophomore year snowballed into a significant regression in performance.
In a way, however, Yoder’s struggles have helped her from a leadership standpoint. In following Yoder, her teammates see how athletes react in the best, and worst situations.
“I want to be a leader where people can see failure and success, Yoder said. “I’ve shown that over my four years, because my first two years were great, and my last two years have been hard. So I think my role on the team [is] to show that cross country isn’t everything, but if you want it to be your everything, let it be everything in the way of family, and not my PR, or my course record.”
What Yoder accomplishes on the course or track is secondary. To Yoder, the 22 other runners are the ones that take priority over herself. This, Spahmer says, makes Yoder the “sweetest person on earth.” Yoder’s roommate for three years, Kathryn Thompson refers to her as the “team mom.”
“I have never met anyone so selfless and graceful and compassionate,” Spahmer said. “I just think that she would definitely put others before herself in a heartbeat.”
Possibly the greatest example of Yoder’s humility took place in a meet at Youngstown, Ohio during the indoor track season sophomore year. Yoder’s classmate, Katie Jones, has a heart condition called ectopic rhythm. When Jones runs, it’s advised that she stop should her heart rate exceed 200. This condition reared its ugly head on this day.
Head track coach Michelle Cross, an assistant on the cross country team, noticed Jones was not well and turned to Yoder to pull her off the track. Yoder did as she was told, to the disapproval of her teammate. Jones didn’t want to stop running, but eventually, Yoder got her off the track. Looking back, Jones is grateful for Yoder looking out for her, and more than a year later, she illustrated what Yoder means to the program in one sentence
“If anyone on the team is hurting, that’s the go-to person is Malarie,” Jones said.
From a running standpoint, no runner has improved more over four years, in Hardie’s eyes, than Katie Jones.
Her improvement on the course and leadership off it led the team to choose her as its captain.
“I think that she is somebody that everybody can go to,” Hardie said. “She’s the one that people go to when they have a question or they have a concern. They go to her.”
For Yoder, the captaincy was something Jones was meant for because of her gentle nature off the track and resiliency on it.
“She’s the complete opposite of strict,” Yoder said. “She’s someone that is always cheerful, always positive. She’s someone who’s gone through multiple struggles in her life, with running especially, and she still comes out smiling.”
For Jones, the captaincy was a natural fit.
“I really care about the team and each person on the team so it pretty much comes naturally,” Jones said. “I think the team feels closer in terms of bonding this year which has also made my responsibilities as team captain easier.”
When Waynesburg conquered Grove City the first time, it looked like Kahryrn Thompson might follow in the footsteps of Gerber and the Latimer twins as a standout runner.
Thompson, who Cunningham describes as a “powerhouse” of an athlete, was a staple in Waynesburg top seven as a freshman, but largely because of factors not within her control, Thompson never reached her full potential.
“I thought my senior year I was going to be in that position where I was still a really strong runner, a really key part of the team, scoring us points and everything,” Thompson said. “But sophomore year hit, and I didn’t get to run at all. That was a hard year.”
For most that year, Thompson battled a pain in her shins that neither she nor her doctors could pinpoint. It turned out that condition was Compartment syndrome, which causes intense pain in the muscles.
In April of her sophomore year, during track season, another unusual injury landed hit Thompson. This injury was Rhabdomyolosis, which Thompson said was caused by the strain of lifting weights.
Yoder said that her friend’s tribulations taught the team about the sport.
“That’s something that taught us what growth was, and taught the team what growth was,” Yoder said. “We’ve learned from her multiple things about staying positive, but also being able to show emotion. As you grow in college, you don’t want people to see you cry. Kat was one that was like ‘I’m going to cry, I’m going to show you my emotion, and I want you to love me, and we’re going to get through this and I’m going to still run. That’s always just been her personality.”
As a senior, Thompson is still technically a Waynesburg student, but is taking her classes at Coastal Carolina University through the Marine Biology program. She is still eligible to run for the Jackets and will be competing Saturday for the second time this season.
When Yoder was a freshman, she understood right away how important the PAC championships were. At this time, the program had never won. Now, it’s won three times, and despite title wins becoming more of an expectation than a historical occurrence, Yoder said the meet still carries the same meaning three years and three wins later.
“I didn’t know what regionals were, because coach Hardie only told me about PAC’s,” she said. “So it was something we had our mind on. I don’t think I’ve ever changed from that mindset. So to win something like PAC’s again, [people might think] ‘oh you guys have done that for three years in a row, it’s not that big of a deal.’ It’s a big deal for us. Because we’re going to be seniors that have done it for four years straight.”
For Cunningham, another championship would be a culmination for both her classmates and her head coach.
“If we do win, it’s something that Hardie will talk about for the rest of his years,” Cunningham said. “That he started with this class of freshman, and for four years, everybody in his class was on a championship team.”
Thompson, who isn’t afraid to show her emotions, won’t hold back if the Jackets win.
“I would probably cry if we won,” she said. “Just knowing I was there for the first one and knew how emotional and how important that was for us. Just knowing that we could keep up that legacy throughout the years, I think I would reflect just on seeing how much this team has grown. We’ve lost some people, but we’ve gained new people. Just seeing everyone come through, just grow and mature. Just knowing that we stay strong no matter what.”
Hardie knows not all five seniors will make it to regionals. In what will be the last hurrah for most of the team, Hardie says the Jackets are ready to roll once again.
“It’s all going to come to a close for a few of them at least,” he said. “And that’s sad, but it’s also great to end with a bang. I think that’s what they’re shooting for. They’re really really focused on this. They’re not going to give it away.”