TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A little more than a year ago, Megan Mooney and Paul Stafford helped bring about one of the most memorable days in the Florida State cross country program’s recent history.
Mooney, then a junior, gained 14 positions in the final 1,000 meters of the NCAA South Region Championship race to lift the Florida State women to their first region title since 2013 and first trip to NCAA Championships since 2014.
And Stafford, then a freshman, gave a glimpse at a promising future by finishing high enough for the FSU men to hold off hard-charging Tennessee and earn their own place at NCAA Championships.
It was the first time since 2014 that both the men’s and women’s teams advanced to NCAAs together.
At the time, FSU men’s coach Bob Braman called it “the first step” toward competing for national titles.
In a sense, the Seminoles will take the next step on Friday, when they again host the NCAA South Region Championships at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee.
The No. 12-ranked women – seeded first in the region – are all but assured of moving on to next NCAA nationals, while the men, nationally ranked during the season and No. 4 in their region, will look to pull an upset on their home course and extend their campaign.
For both teams, though, the goal is the same.
“Get on that plane,” to the NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., Stafford said.
If the Seminoles are going to do that, both Mooney and Stafford will likely have a big say in it.
A senior and part of coach Kelly Phillips’ first signing class, Mooney is a second-generation Seminole who initially didn’t have much interest in following in her parents’ footsteps.
Although Mooney’s mother, Carrie Mooney (Boyd), ran at FSU from 1986-91, Mooney, a Colorado native, originally didn’t have FSU in her collegiate plans.
But a call from Phillips, who had recently been hired to revamp Florida State’s women’s program, changed that.
Phillips convinced Mooney to come for a visit, and Mooney found a perfect fit.
“I was like, ‘all right, why not? Florida’s nice,’” Mooney said. “When I got here, I loved Coach Kelly, I loved the girls on the team at that time. I loved just the whole atmosphere. I knew there was something special.”
Mooney was right. Over the next three-plus years, the Seminoles returned to the national rankings, qualified for the NCAA Championships and reclaimed of place of prominence in the ACC.
And Mooney logged a memory for a lifetime on that morning in Tallahassee last year.
As she moved into the last 2,000 meters of the regional race, Mooney looked up and saw Braman, Phillips and a handful of teammates “screaming their heads off” as she passed.
“(Screaming) that I needed to move,” she said.
Mooney then looked up and saw two runners wearing orange and blue directly ahead of her.
The University of Florida, in addition to being one of FSU’s top rivals, was also perhaps the Seminoles’ toughest competition on the day.
“I was like, ‘I have to get them,’” Mooney said.
She did – them and a dozen others.
By the time she finished, Mooney had placed 18th out of 206 runners and, combined with the rest of her teammates, had done enough to give the Seminoles a stunning first-place finish.
Her reaction shows just how stunning:
“I put on the wheels up the last hill and made a really big surge in the last (kilometer) to catch as many as I could,” Mooney said. “I know that made a really big impact for our team.”
And for Mooney.
Phillips called Mooney a “calming force” on the FSU women’s cross country team, someone who was invaluable in the locker room and in hosting incoming recruits.
But, when Mooney blew past the competition in that regional race, it showed Mooney something else:
“It helped her to realize, ‘Wow, I’m probably better than I give myself credit for,’” Phillips said. “She gives everybody else the credit, but forgets that she’s pretty darn talented as well.”
Stafford is only in his second year at Florida State, but could be well on his way to a similar story.
A Lake Wales, Fla., native in a sport often dominated by international runners, Stafford originally grew up cheering for the Miami Hurricanes. Yes, that has since changed.
Stafford cemented himself in program history at that same race, when he helped the Seminoles break a tie with Tennessee for the last automatic-qualifier spot in nationals.
A year later, Braman remembers wishing that he could have had Stafford redshirt for a year.
He’s glad he didn’t.
“I didn’t know what to expect at all,” Stafford said. “But I came out of it with confidence that, man, I can be good at it if I just continue to be consistent with my training.”
Safe to say that he has. After consistently finishing among FSU’s top five as a freshman, Stafford this season has twice been the Seminoles’ No. 2 scorer and a few weeks ago earned his first All-ACC designation after finishing 17th at the conference championships.
He enters Friday’s race as part of a group that has a chance to earn an at-large bid but would prefer to just earn an automatic spot and remove any doubt from the equation.
To make that happen, the Seminoles will have to outrace some combination of No. 11 Mississippi (No. 1 in the region), No. 15 Middle Tennessee (No. 2) or No. 28 Alabama (No. 3).
“The region is as good as it’s ever been,” Stafford said. “But we’re as good as we’ve ever been.
“And now we just have something to prove out there. And it’s at home, so we’ve got to defend our home turf.”