By JERRY BYRD, Journal Sports
NATCHITOCHES — Ninth place never felt so good. Just ask C.E. Byrd junior Jenna Key.
She has bigger medals from more impressive state meet performances, but the one she swung back and forth around her neck after finishing ninth on Monday at the LHSAA State Cross Country Championships is more special than any other medal she has won in her high school career.
“It means so much more because I had to work so hard to even race,” Key said.
For the second straight season, Key has had to battle back from injury to compete on the sport’s biggest stage. Last spring it was a sprained ankle from a freak accident at practice which sidelined her for most of the outdoor track season. This fall, sciatica was the culprit, which kept Key from performing at an elite level most of the season.
“Last year, my season was perfect,” Key said about her 2021 LHSAA Class 5A state cross country runner-up sophomore season. “I got a medal – great, but even finishing third in outdoors (3200-meter run) at state, I was balling my eyes out. I’m about to cry now. I am just so happy I was able to run.”
Key finished No. 9 Monday with a time of 18:44 in cold and muddy conditions.
St. Joseph’s Academy’s Hannah Vaughan led the Stickers to a seventh-consecutive team championship by winning the individual title with an 18:05. Ruston’s Lily Garrett, who beat Key last year to win the 2021 state championship, finished second in 18:11.
Key’s performance at Northwestern State’s Walter P. Ledet Track Complex on Monday morning was a stark contrast from her effort at the D-I Region I Championship at Lincoln Parish Park in Ruston on Nov. 3, where she finished in eighth place with a 19:17.
“I just had to trust all of the training I did this summer,” Key said. “I don’t know what happened at regionals. I just think physically and mentally – I wasn’t ready. I told myself to just race, and I think I did the best I could.”
C.E. Byrd finished fourth in the team competition with 140 points. It’s the highest finish in school history. The winner, SJA, scored 40 points while runner-up Ruston scored 77.
Key gave her teammates and coach credit for the program’s historic state meet results.
“They make practice so much better,” Key said of her teammates. “They make the environment so positive. The whole team, we’re all young. We will all be back next year. We’ll have Hudson (Roberts) next year. I know she is excited about coming back.”
“He (Byrd coach Juan Plaza) is the most positive person ever,” Key said. “He is like having a second dad. I tell him everything. He is always there checking in on us, making sure we are ready, hydrated.”
Key wasn’t the only Byrd runner overcoming adversity during the state championship race.
Fellow junior Spencer Frierson lost her shoe in the first 800 meters of the race. She was spiked on the back of her right heel, causing the shoe to come off. Flesh dangled from the back of Frierson’s right heel as she made her way through the muddy three-mile course on her way to a personal record time of 20:14.
Loyola’s Tripp Roemer, a junior, had the highest finish of any local runner. The Flyer finished second in the Division III boys’ race’ with a time of 16:14. Loyola, which won the Division III Region I Meet, finished eighth with 248 points.
Parkview Baptist, the defending LHSAA Class 3A state champion, won the Division III boys’ team competition with a score of 52 points, 27 points under University Lab, who was led by senior Blayton Bernard, who won the first state championship of his high school career with a time of 16:05.
Mother Nature saved her worst for last at the state meet. The final race of the day was the Division IV Boys’ race. The runners had to battle a muddy course, which was quickly deteriorating after accommodating the previous nine state championship races throughout the day.
To add insult to injury, She added a bone-chilling downpour for the runners to endure.
“I cannot feel anything,” said Calvary sophomore Jackson Burney after his race, where he finished sixth with a time of 17:06. “This was by far the worst race I’ve ever run in. There was so much mud and I almost fell a few times. I just had to fight through the conditions, the mud, and the rain.”
Burney thawed out on his return to Shreveport and made it back to Calvary Baptist Academy in time for his 7 p.m. National Honor Society induction ceremony.
It was indoors.
Contact Jerry at email@example.com