By David Fong
HEBRON — For four years, the only alleged weak spot in Morgan Gigandet’s nearly flawless running game has been her inability to “kick” near the finish line.
Saturday, the Troy senior cross country runner kicked that notion to the curb, outkicked the competition and kicked down the door to the state championship she’s been chasing for entire high school carer.
After several near misses the past two years — placing third as a sophomore and sixth last year — Gigandet captured a Division I state cross country championship Saturday at National Trail Raceway, passing Solon’s Olivia Howell with about 20 meters left in the race to finish in 17:30. Howell finished in 17:32.
“That was fun,” Gigandet said of the final 20 meters, which saw her pass Howell, who seemed to slip slightly on the muddy course, as the fans watching from the grandstands broke into a raucous cheer. “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.”
Gigandet stayed with the pack at the beginning of the race, but began to pull away near the 1.5 mile mark. She wold hold that lead until Howell — a state champion in the 1,600 meter race last spring —began to make her move on Gigandet with about a half-mile to go in the race.
“I wanted to just sit back the first mile and a half and then go, see if anyone went with me,” Gigandet said. “Nobody went with me at first. They were like right behind me, but now with me.”
At that point, even Troy coach Kevin Alexander figured she would catch Gigandet and pass her for the victory. He would focus on the Trojans’ other six runners and didn’t even find out Gigandet had won a state championship until several minutes after the race had ended.
“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 huge 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.”
For Gigandet, winning a state championship is a dream come true — one she wasn’t sure was ever going to happen for her.
“When I was in eighth grade, I was like, ‘Oh, that would be cool to win state. Didn’t think I would. Honestly I didn’t.”
After four long years, though, she did — just for kicks.
Division I Girls
The Troy girls cross country team — making its third state appearance in a row — placed 13th out of 20 teams.
In addition to Gigandet’s first-place finish, senior Emma Shigley — making her fourth appearance at the state meet — was 76th (19:33), junior Kate Pence was 93rd (19:50), senior Megan Myers was 109th (20:03), junior Olivia Tyre was 125th (20:16), freshman Dinah Gigandet was 158th (21:09) and sophomore Chloe Klawon was 173rd (22:47).
“I’m proud of this team,” Alexander said. “To come to the state meet three years in a row is pretty impressive. The kids worked hard to get to this point. It was a great season. We’re going to miss our three seniors, Morgan, Emma and Megan. They’ve done so much for this program.”
Division II Girls
The Tippecanoe girls cross country team finished third in the Division II race, while Katie Taylor finished 16th (18:58) to earn All-Ohio honors for the second year in a row.
“It’s been my habit to go off a little too fast, so I ran a more conservative race today,” Taylor said. “It feels great. I placed 16th last year and I wanted to try to move up this year, but I can’t complain.”
Also for Tippecanoe: Stephanie Fink placed 35th (19:23), MaKenzie Dietz placed 64th (19:51), MacKenzie Dix placed 73rd (20:01), Jillian Brown placed 76th (20:03), Kaili Titley placed 82nd (20:06) and Laura Fink placed 108th (20:40).
Lexington won the team title with 137 points, Fairfield Union was second with 147 and Tippecanoe was third with 162.
“We placed in 2015, third last year and third this year,” Tippecanoe coach Byron Kimmel said. “This is the fifth year in a row the team has been to state. We’ve definitely got the program going in the right direction, but I think once you get a taste of that podium, you get a little greedy. But I’m proud of the way our girls ran.”
Division III Girls
In the girls Division III race, Covington’s Paige Boehringer placed 42d in 20:03.
Division II Boys
In the boys Division II race, Tippecanoe’s Bryce Conley placed 33rd in 16:44, while Miami East’s Gavin Horne finished 75th in 17:05.
Contact David Fong at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @thefong