CORTLAND — It was a picture-perfect day at the Trumbull County Fairgrounds in Cortland.
The sun was out. The Greenmen qualified their boys and girls for the Boardman regional meet — with both teams taking third at last Saturday’s district meet. Smiling runners and parents alike milled around the Aurora tent.
Don’t confuse happiness for contentment.
They were happy.
They’re nowhere near done.
"We’ve been preparing for this for a long time," Greenmen sophomore Matt Singleton said. "Since day one, we had the dream to go to states because since we’ve been in Division I, we’ve never had a team go to states and we feel like this is the group. We’ve been pretty pumped up throughout the whole time and we’ve just been psyching each other up and it paid off."
The truth is no one knows what this Aurora team can do — this year and in the future.
Consider that the Greenmen girls were led Saturday by a freshman, Grace Barto (seventh, 19 minutes, 31.21 seconds), and a sophomore, Morgan Schmitt (13th, 19:51.4), both running their third high school race.
Consider that the Aurora boys were led by a pair of sophomores in Singleton (second, 16:08.53) and Andrew Ploskunak (17th, 16:41.60).
"The time wasn’t even close to what I was trying to go, but it’s taught me a lot," Singleton said. "It teaches me what I need to do for next time and that I actually need to stay up here because I was going with (district champion Michael Dunham of Boardman) for most of the race and then I kind of just let up. My legs just gave out. We’ll figure it out."
There’s plenty of time to figure it all out and head coach Laura Bell-Peters said a more crowded race could help next week (last Saturday’s race was a bit spread out with Dunham winning by 15.28 seconds.)
"I think it was really, really good exposure," Singleton said. "I think it’s going to be good exposure to run against people like Michael Dunham, people like that who really know how to race. I think with that type of experience and everything, we’ll be even more ready for regionals."
As for Barto, her seventh-place finish would have been impressive for anyone, let alone any freshman.
"[Grace] definitely has this really good spirit about herself," Bell-Peters said. "She’s always happy, bubbly. She is a hard worker."
Then there’s the fact that it came in just her third high school race after missing the early part of the season with "minor setbacks and minor injuries," as Bell-Peters put it.
"I just trained really hard and I tried my best and I keep [getting personal records] so I’ve been trying to really improve," Barto said. "I feel like all the waiting just made me do 10 times better, like resting and seeing how everyone runs their own way and it’s just our team really pushed me to do better and they all taught me how to run."
Bell-Peters knew Barto would be a "key player" as a freshman after a successful middle school career. Seventh in the district in her third career race: Who could have predicted that?
"I had seen her race a couple of times at the middle school, so I knew she was going to be a strong athlete for us," Bell-Peters said. "I’m not so sure I was 100 percent sure she’d be in that top 10 [last Saturday], but I knew she had that potential. I don’t think she’s running as fast as she [can]. I think there’s more in her."
The same goes for Schmitt, a sophomore who took 13th in the district despite missing a substantial portion of the year due to knee pain.
"She’s very talented, hard worker," Bell-Peters said. "I know she’s disappointed in her overall season, it’s not done yet, but I think she’s got a lot more room to grow."
But it’s more than a couple of lead runners. The depth in the program is fantastic. Last Saturday, the Greenmen had six girls in the top 28 and five boys in the top 37.
The Aurora girls scorers beyond Barto and Schmitt were junior Victoria Blechschmid (22nd, 20:13.84), senior and returning state qualifier Karsen Zabell (25th, 20:25.29) and sophomore Stephanie Lubin (27th, 20:31.33). Had Lubin not crossed when she did, Aurora would have been just fine with junior Mikayla Jones crossing mere seconds after for 28th.
While Singleton was the only boys runner in Saturday’s top 16 for the Greenmen. The next four all finished between 17th (sophomore Andrew Ploskunak) and 37th (Samuel Siedel). In between Ploskunak and Seidel, senior Jack Deptola took 22nd and junior Justin Hartland took 31st. With just two seniors, the Greenmen boys will be loaded for a long time.
"We knew that Matt and Andrew were going to be our solid one-two and we knew coming in that our three, four, five, and our six, if it’s [a] tiebreaker, were going to be key," Bell-Peters said. "The thing that I love about this team that makes them so special out of any other team that we’ve had is they really do have a team unity and they have a cohesiveness. It’s not about who comes in third for the team, who comes in fourth for the team, it rotates and they’re OK with that and that’s huge."
And that’s where those smiles around the tent are more than just smiles. They’re part of a winning formula.
"I think the chemistry is fantastic between us," Singleton said. "We have a good time every practice and I think just because we’re all extremely good friends, we just push each other even more."
"If our team wasn’t [as] close [as] we are, I don’t think I could do it on my own whatsoever," Barto said. "Going to the next thing as a team, it’s going to really push everyone to work together harder and I just think we can really go far."
The boys team placed third out of 14 teams with 109 points. Hudson won the competition with 47 points and Solon was the runner-up (56). Also advancing were Boardman (120) and Stow-Munroe Falls (147).
The girls team placed third out of 12 teams with 94 points. Hudson easily won the competition with 41 points. Warren Howland was the runner-up with 84 points. Also qualifying were Boardman (106) and Twinsburg (115).
The Division I regional competition is scheduled to take place this Saturday at Boardman High School. Racing is set to begin at 11 a.m.