BAYOU GEORGE — It was a case of 13 being as good as one for three Bay County cross country runners on Saturday.
Bay hosted the District 1-2A meet at Harders Park with competitors from eight schools vying for regional berths. The top four teams and top 13 runners overall in each race advanced to next week’s event in Tallahassee.
The perennial favorite, Arnold’s Mikayla Hodges, won the girls individual title in 19 minutes, 49 seconds. She was followed closely by Michaela Ashley in 20:19. Pensacola West Florida Tech’s Alec Clark won the boys’ title in 16:57.
Those accolades, while impressive, didn’t outshine the efforts of three area runners that crept into regional spots close to the wire with admittedly surprising results.
Rutherford’s Jodi Phillips was the third and final Bay County girls runner to advance, finishing 11th in 22:25. Arnold’s Connor Hodges was 11th in the boys’ race and Rutherford senior Adam Cassel 12th. Cassel advanced in place of Andrew Wyllie, one of the county’s top runners who didn’t compete due to a foot injury.
Phillips’ teammate, Melissa Garred, moved on to the regional meet last season, but finished 15th on Saturday, 25 seconds back of 13th. Saturday featured slower times for many athletes, despite county teams being familiar with the course, thanks to hotter temperatures and little wind.
“It wasn’t my best time, but at least I made it regionals,” Phillips said. “I’m happy to make it, I didn’t the past few years.”
Phillips said she knew she was in the top 10 at the start. Her strategy was to keep the same runner in front of her, South Walton’s Madeline Fulmer, while making sure she wasn’t passed. It paid off, as Fulmer and Philips finished back-to-back.
Phillips, a senior, is confident a stronger run next week and nearing her normal time will give her an opportunity to challenge for a state berth. However, Garred told Phillips the Tallahassee course is more difficult, making it a battle against the foreign terrain and the others trying to sneak into the state mix.
“It’s a tough course so I might not get my best time at regional, either,” Phillips said. “But, I’m so happy I get to go.”
Sophomore Connor Hodges, who joined Jordan Lance (fifth) as regional qualifiers for the Marlins, echoed Phillips’ happiness and also was one of the rare competitors with a faster time. He finished in 18:56, a minute faster than his average. He bested 14th place David McGahan of Bratt Northview by 47 seconds and sprinted across the finish line.
“I really didn’t expect to go (to regionals) at all,” he said. “It was hotter, but some of us ran a little better.”
His strategy mirrored that of Phillips, as he tried to keep pace with faster runners in front of him while fending off passing advances. The No. 13 was constantly on his mind.
“It was motivation during the race, you want to get into the top 13,” he said. “You wanted to finish as high as possible in case anyone passed you near the end.”
Connor Hodges and Arnold placed fourth with 94 points and advanced as a team. West Florida Tech won the boys’ race with 27 points and Pensacola Catholic also advanced with a 43.
Mikayla Hodges’ and Cooley’s finishes helped Arnold move on in third place with 98 points. West Florida (33) and Pensacola Catholic (54) also finished Nos. 1, 2 for the girls.
District 1-2A cross country meet results:
Team scores: West Florida Tech 27, Pensacola Catholic 43, South Walton 93, Arnold 94, Rutherford 116, Bay 167, Northview 176
Individual top 13 regional qualifiers: Clark (WFT) 16:57, Remich (PC) 17:06, Chope (PC) 17:32, Sortino (WFT) 17:47, Lance (A) 18:13, Wakefield (WFT) 18:40, Diamond (WFT) 18:44, Ryan (SW) 18:45, Wright (WFT) 18:47, Byrd (PC) 18:49, Hodges (A) 18:56, Cassel (R) 19:04, Cuevas (PC) 19:14
Team scores: West Florida Tech 33, Pensacola Catholic 54, Arnold 98, South Walton 109, Rutherford 113, Northview 119, Bay 194
Individual top 13 regional qualifiers: Hodges (A) 19:49, Cooley (A) 20:19, Nesbitt (WFT) 20:34, Campion (PC) 20:40, Farr (PC) 20:59, Roberts (WFT) 21:06, Sanchez (WFT) 21:58, Sortino (WFT) 22:09, Wiley (WFT) 22:10, Fulmer (SW) 22:22, Phillips (22:25), Lockridge (PC) 22:40, Endacott (PC) 22:41