MOUNT ZION — "The strength of the wolf is the pack."
Those are the words that the Mount Zion girls cross country team will have with them as they compete in the Class 2A State Final meet Saturday at Detweiller Park in Peoria.
"That's a famous quote that (boys cross country coach Bill Harbeck) says — we are a group. We are a team," senior runner Jenny Baumann said. "Our top runner changes every single race and I think that is awesome. It is selfless and it doesn't matter who comes in first and that is how we got to where we are."
The Braves earned their trip to state with a fourth-place finish at the MacArthur Sectional at Hickory Point Golf Course last week.
Top runners Taylor Fox and Lucy Griffith finished a second apart at 19:25 and 19:26 at the sectional and the top four Braves runners all finished within 25 seconds. The previous weekend at the Danville Regional it was Emma Mallory and Lilly Griffith who finished a second apart 19:06 and 19:07 and the top four were within 49 seconds.
The Braves don't have that lone superstar runner and so whoever is feeling it that day can be the star.
"Saturday was my day but Lucy was right behind me. We run as a pack, which makes it so much easier," Fox said. "It's the first time for all of us qualifying for cross country so to be able to go as a team is an exciting experience."
They are the first Braves cross country team to qualify for state since 2011, but that's not to say the team isn't experienced at the state level.
Four of the teams' runners made up the Braves' state-qualify 4x800 meter relay team (Fox, Lucy Griffith, Kaelyn Mackling and Baumann) last spring.
"It is good that some of us have gone to state in track because you want to go back and after sharing that with the younger girls they want to go now, too," Baumann said.
Kelly (Thoroman) Fox, coach of the girls track and cross country team, also has considerable experience at the state level. While a student at Piasa Southwestern, Fox earned a fourth place finish in the 800 and 3,200 meters in 1988 and a bronze medal in the 1,600 in 1990.
"I've been there and I've had the nerves, all of that," Kelly Fox said. "I think that does make a difference and I still run with the girls as often as I can. I try to me a role model for them."
But Kelly Fox is humble about her own success.
"Coach has talked about her personal experience but she sort of shrugs them off as not being a big deal. And we are like, 'No, coach you are an awesome runner,'" Baumann said. "I think she is like that because she wants us to experience it for ourselves and not for her."
An unexpected development for the Braves this season has been the arrival of freshman Emma Mallory, who placed second at the regional.
"Emma is a very smooth and efficient runner. I was just hopping to get her into the low 20s this year and I had no expectation that should be be getting into the low 19s," Kelly Fox said. "She has really been the surprise. What she has done is brought the entire (team's score) down by just being a silent leader. Here you have a freshman coming in and there is an excitement there."
Even Mallory was unsure how she would feel with the longer distances at the high school level.
"I have been surprised myself because I didn't expect to be so high up as a freshman. I really didn't even know if I was going to be tired from running three miles because junior high was two miles so I was a little scared on how I would do," she said. "I was really nervous at sectionals but all my teammates helped me through it."
Part of the Braves' success has been tied to how well they get along.
"We are so close. I always look forward to coming to practice," Baumann said. "In past years we would sometimes have carbo-loading parties on Friday nights before big races but this year we have had so many because it is so much fun and I wouldn't want to spend my Friday nights with anyone else."
The team is also realistic about their goals at state — personal bests rather than worrying about a medal.
Mallory has one particular barrier she wants to shatter on Saturday.
"I just want to do my best and break 19 minutes at state. Even though I probably won't be in the top 25, I'm hoping to give myself a new PR," she said.
The Braves' pack will be running at state with the anxiety lifted.
"Now that the pressure of making it to state is over, I think they can go out there and run their best races," Kelly Fox said. "No one is going to medal and that's just not the team that we are. We don't have a superstar on this team but they are all pushing each other to do their very best."