TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Friday began with a heavy fog hanging over Apalachee Regional Park, which gave way to bright sunshine and one of the most rewarding days in Florida State cross country history.
The Seminole women and men are headed to the NCAA Cross Country Championships next weekend in Madison, Wisc. as automatic qualifiers from the NCAA South Region meet.
It’s the first time the programs have advanced together since 2014, and perhaps the start of a new run like the Noles enjoyed when they shared the national championship experience eight times during a nine-year stretch from 2006-2014.
Fourth-year coach Kelly Phillips’ women’s squad cut through the morning fog and lifted everyone’s spirits, racing to the programs’ seventh South Region title, but first since 2013.
Veteran coach Bob Braman’s 19th FSU men, young, unranked and underestimated, will arrive at the NCAA Championship for the first time since 2015 following an impressive runner-up finish.
It has been a long climb back to those once-common heights, which had helped lure juniors Megan Mooney and Steven Cross to Tallahassee, among others.
“The culture change, the enthusiasm and the drive that we’ve had this whole season led me to believe coming into this, that we could do it,” said Mooney, one of five FSU women to finish in the top 25 and earn All-Region honors. “But from three years ago when I got here as a freshman…this is just unbelievable. It’s really cool and exciting.”
Senior Militsa Mircheva, 26th at last season’s region meet, left no doubt about her redemption intentions, pulling away from Florida’s Jessica Pascoe over the final 500 meters to win the individual title in 20:16.9. It was FSU’s first individual crown since Colleen Quigley’s back-to-back titles in 2013 and 2014 capped a string of four consecutive Seminole wins.
Behind the Bulgarian star, her teammates were authoring a meet-changing finish of their own. With 1,000 meters remaining the Noles were in third place and not going to the NCAA Championships, trailing No. 21 Florida by 14 points and No. 23 Ole Miss by six for the final qualifying spot.
“Throughout the race the coaches were yelling at us about where we were both individually and team-wise, which helped me keep it in perspective and keep myself calm,” Mooney said. “On the last kilometer, there were so many of our teammates back there [on the course] and honestly I think they were the ones who helped me drive. They were yelling, ‘Do it for the team. They’re working hard for you. Do it for them.’ That helped me realize, ‘It’s the last K at the ARP. I know what’s coming. Let’s get it done.’”
The unranked Noles got it done collectively as the top five combined to move up 20 spots during a stretch which included the final climb known as “The Wall” to overhaul both the Gators and Rebels.
Freshman Elizabeth Funderburk (8th, 20:43.4), sophomore Maudie Skyring (11th, 20:58.2), Mooney (18th, 21:06.7) and sophomore Jodie Judd (24th, 21:12.4) delivered the team title, all in personal-best times over 6,000 meters. Senior Althea Hewitt (49th, 21:41.2) and sophomore Jen Lima (59th, 21:52.2) also recorded personal-best times in their support effort.
Mooney moved up nine positions over the final kilometer, while Judd passed seven and Skyring four, leading the fast-closing chase pack.
When the points were calculated, FSU’s 60-point total was four clear of the Gators and 27 in front of the fading Rebels in third place.
The Seminole men had an equally daunting battle on their hands, given that no fewer than four teams were battling for the second and final qualifying spot behind 17th-ranked Ole Miss, which cruised to the title with 45 points.
Caleb Pottorff continued his banner redshirt freshman campaign in his first 10,000-meter race, placing ninth (31:32.0) to lead the Noles. Close behind were Cross (17th, 31:56.9) and senior Toby Hardwick (18th, 31:57.4). Still, FSU found itself tied with Tennessee (44 points) for second place with three scoring runners across the finish line.
Freshman Paul Stafford (21st, 32:04.5) and senior Istvan Szogi (27th, 32:15.7) delivered the decisive blow. Stafford crossed the finish line 10 seconds in front of the Vols’ third runner and Szogi was three seconds clear of their fourth finisher, providing the Noles with a 92-108 cushion for the second auto-qualifying spot.
“This is hard to put into words,” said Cross, one of four Noles to earn All-Region honors. “I’m not sure it has fully sunk in yet. It’s been a long time coming. It’s something that shouldn’t be a treat, but getting the Noles back to the national meet – doing what we knew what we had to do and can do – it feels so great.”
Tallahassee natives, freshman Matthew Newland (48th, 32:46.8) and junior Tyson Murray (57th, 32:57.5), rounded out the finishing Noles. They are among five FSU runners from Florida; the most of any of Braman’s 13 NCAA Championship qualifying teams.
Cross said it was a confident bunch as they walked to the starting line.
“The boys have been taking care of business every day this season and it just paid off,” said the Merritt Island product, who won a state high school title on the same course. “That’s what we were talking about before the race. The work was done. We were just picking up our paycheck today, and we picked it up. We’re getting on that plane…
“We had faith in each other and made it happen.”