By David Fong
TROY — Not this time.
Not this year.
Not this race.
After three years of heartbreak, near-misses and falling just short, Morgan Gigandet was able to put it all together in the final cross country race of her high school career. Under gray skies, the Troy High School senior made the most of her time to shine, coming from behind to win a Division I state cross country championship in thrilling fashion last November.
As a result of her accomplishments in both cross country and track, Gigandet is the 2017-18 Troy Daily News Girls Athlete of the Year. Special consideration also was given to Troy sophomore Lenea Browder, who won a state discus title for the Troy girls track and field team in the spring, while also placing second in the state in the shot put. It was the first time in more than 100 years of athletics two Troy athletes have ever won state titles in the same school year.
In the end, though, the scope of Gigandet’s achievements over her four-year career was enough to tip things in her favor. And besides, it’s hard to believe Browder won’t be receiving strong consideration for this award again for the next two years.
Gigandet’s incredible career culminated last fall in the state title that had previously eluded her in both cross country and track. As the race neared its conclusion, it looked like a state title was going to slip through her fingers yet again.
After taking an early lead on a muddy course and National Trail Raceway, a handful of runners began closing in Gigandet, with Solon’s Olivia Howell — a state champion in the 1,600 the previous spring — eventually catching up to Gigandet and passing her. With roughly 20 meters left in the race, though, Howell began to run out of gas and appeared to momentarily slip in the mud. Gigandet never broke stride, passing her and crossing the finish line in 17:30 — 2 seconds ahead of Howell — to win the first state cross country title in school history.
“That was fun,” Gigandet said of the finish, which brought the crowd in the stands to its feet as it let out a thunderous roar. “I kind of was like, ‘Do I have to go faster?’ And then she passed me and I was like, ‘Well, I kind of don’t want to get second.’ So I thought I better try. So then I tried and then I passed her.”
The win was made all the more trhilling by the fact that, throughout her career, Gigandet had never been known for her finishing kick. In the races she won — of which there were many, as Gigandet went undefeated in cross country her senior year — her modus operandi was to get out to a huge lead and run the competition into submission by the midway point.
In fact, when the competition started to catch up to Gigandet, Troy cross country coach Kevin Alexander figured the race was over and began focusing on the rest of his runners competing that day. He didn’t actually see Gigandet finish the race.
“This is the greatest surprise I’ve had in my life since my child was born — we didn’t find out the gender,” and exuberant Alexander said after nearly tackling Gigandet in a hug after the race. “We were back in the woods and I saw the Solon girl inching up and inching up. I knew she had won the state mile last spring and I thought there was no way Morgan would be able to outkick her, so I started paying attention to the other girls.
“Morgan has never outkicked anybody. But she sure picked the right time to do it. I couldn’t be prouder of her right now. I know how hard she’s worked to get to this point. To be able to coach her and see her standing on top of that podium is just incredible. She deserves it, with all of the hard work she’s put in.”
Gigandet’s climb to the top in both cross country and track was a steady one. She was a cross country state qualifier as a freshman. That spring, she qualified for the state track and field meet in the 3,200, placing seventh. As a sophomore, she was one of the favorites to win the state cross country meet, but after taking an early lead, faded late and ended up in fourth place. The spring of her sophomore year, she again was one of the favorites to win the 3,200, but once again took an early lead and faded back to third place.
As a junior, Gigandet placed sixth at the state cross country meet and eighth in the 3,200. All that did, however, was serve as motivation for Gigandet as she tracked down her state cross country title. That would serve as the crowing glory of her final year at Troy, as a series of injuries and illness hampered Gigandet throughout her senior track season. She was able to qualify for the state meet for a fourth time, but was unable to place.
This fall, Gigandet will compete for the Iowa State University distance programs.
“I really liked the coach,” Gigandet said. “She’s really dedicated to the program and to her runners. I liked how she had a vision for me and the team. I could tell she really believed in her vision. I trusted her. I also really liked the girls on the team. They were all really nice and I can see myself hanging out with them. I think I will enjoy myself.”
Contact David Fong at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong