MOUNT ZION -- The state cross country meet can be tiring for the runners but many coaches also get a workout too while their athletes are competing.
Mount Zion girls cross country coach Kelly Fox runs her own race during a meet, zigzagging around the course to get to as many spots as she can to encourage her team on.
"Most of the time it is reminding them to keep the pack together and that your pack is your strength," Fox said. "It happens in some cases someone is not having the best of days and you tell them to give it your all, just encouraging things. There’s really nothing I can say that will necessarily make them run any harder but I'm making sure they mentally stay positive and are in the race."
Fox, the Herald and Review's selection as the 2018 Area Girls Cross Country Coach of the Year, guided her Braves team to their first state appearance as a team since 2011.
But as the Mount Zion girls were preparing for the opening gun, Fox ran into a challenge -- too many fans.
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"Normally when we run they can see me in multiple locations because I like to get to several spots but at the state meet it wasn’t possible. The weather was nice and (Peoria's Detweiller Park) was packed. I was layers deep and I’m not really sure if any of my runners heard me or knew where I was," Fox said. "There were crowds going side to side and they were lined up all over the course but it was neat for the kids because they are never running by themselves."
As a team, Mount Zion finished 23rd at state but the competition was more about setting personal bests than competing for a trophy and the Braves' seniors made the most of their opportunity.
"At the state meet (seniors) Kaelyn Mackling and Jenny Baumann both ran personal bests for the season. Jenny had battled some injuries and Kaelyn ran a personal record by 20 seconds for the season. I was thrilled with those two and their ability. (Senior) Ashlyn Mackling ran just a second off of her personal best," Fox said. "Words really can’t explain what they meant to this team and everyone ran knowing that this was their last race and how much effort they had put in this season and it just makes a world of difference. They ran for each other."
Although this was just Fox's second season as Mount Zion's girls cross country coach, she has an extensive history in coaching. She served as Mount Zion's junior high cross country coach for more than 20 years as well as the the high school girls track coach. She also has an impressive state running resume while a student at Piasa Southwestern where she earned a fourth place finish in the 800 and 3,200 meters in 1988 and a bronze medal in the 1,600 in 1990.
While this year's trip to state was low pressure, next year the Braves will need to raise the bar.
"We kept it relaxed and this year it was about making the trip to state. But I think we felt a little bit overwhelmed once we were in the race. We kind of fell in the mix of the numbers and I think everyone ran well considering the nerves that went into it and their their first experience at the state meet," Fox said. "I think we can run better and next year the mood changes a little bit to where, yes, we have been there and now it is time to make some noise and step up and add a little bit more to it and our expectations."
Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten