By BEN JOHNSON
Tahlequah High School — more than any other secondary education institution — knows anything can happen at state cross country meet. Just anyone of the Tahlequah runners that were at the 2011 meet.
Jessica Hembree was closing in on her third individual title in three years when she suffered a severe leg injury less than 100 yards from the finish line. She didn’t even finish the race, eliminating any chance of becoming a four-time state champion.
No one saw the injury coming. That’s just how things transpire at state cross country meets.
That’s why Tahlequah coaches, Elzy Miller and Jason Proctor, say anything can happen when they proclaim Deer Creek as the favorites to win team golds at the state meet in Edmond on Saturday.
Miller’s girls team is expected to be hot on Deer Creek’s tail this weekend, but Miller knows something unusual will have to happen for his club to possibly be atop the medal stand.
“Deer Creek will be tough to beat,” he said. “We need a bad day from someone on their team to beat them.”
Tahlequah, coming off a regional title last weekend in Tulsa, will count on Gracie Medellin and Amy Hembree to set the pace this weekend. Both logged top-four finishes at the regional race at Oral Roberts University’s course last weekend.
“The fact that Gracie and Amy have gone back and forth has been a solid one-two punch for us all year,” Miller said. “(Those two) finishing near the front has been a big boost to this team.”
Tahlequah’s best chance to claim a state championship will rest squarely on the shoulders of Lindsey Chaffin, Alejandra Medellin, Madison Reed and Miranda Bohanon. All four finished in the top 35 at the regional meet.
“Alejandra is possibly our most improve athlete, not only time-wise but in leadership,” Miller said. “She has come alive and has been really focused this year. Lindsey is a steady No. 3 and continues to do her part. Madison, Miranda and Tori (Geasland) work hard and give us a solid group.”
For the Tahlequah boys, the mindset is simple heading into the state meet.
Just run. That’s it.
“We refuse to be defined by the outcome of the race,” Proctor said. “Winning or losing does matter, but in the end it is just running...we are out to use our gifts, talents and abilities to the best we can.”
Those skills came in handy for a first-place finish at the regional meet. And leading the way was Zech VanFleet, who won an individual gold for the second straight season.
“He has shown that he is not only one of the top guys in 5A, but also one of the best in the entire state,” Proctor said. “As far as his chance of winning it all, we’ve known all year that Bryce Balenseifen from Deer Creek is a very, very good runner and that Zech can run with him. But there is nothing given about the race.”
As for Tahlequah’s chance of winning a state title, it’ll be up to the Tigers to catch Deer Creek, which has won the last two state crowns.
“Last year, they cruised to an easy win with 36 points to Coweta at 115 and us with 144,” Proctor said. “(Deer Creek) is the favorite again, but I do believe both us and Coweta are better than we each were last year, thus making the race a bit closer.
“We are also, as well, aware as anyone out there that there is nothing guaranteed when it comes to the state meet.”
Proctor was there in 2011. He knows absolutely anything can happen.