Lady Pats 4-Peat
CLINTON – There’s no moment too big for Laurel Fulcher. In fact, the bigger the moment the better she performs.
“Laurel thrives when the most is on the line,” MRA cross country coach Pat Lovitt said.
Fulcher’s atypical ability to rise to the occasion on the biggest of stages was on full display once again during Tuesday’s MAIS Class 5A cross country state championship at sun-splashed Choctaw Trails. Slowed by a nagging ankle injury which kept her from performing anywhere close to peak level over the past month or so, the ultra-athletic senior turned in by far her best race of the season at the most opportune of times, finishing second and sparking the Lady Patriots to a fourth straight title.
MRA won with a total of 26 points, out-dueling runner-up Jackson Prep (30) by four points. While the rest of the competition may not have given much thought to Fulcher prior to the race because of her sub-par finishes during the regular season, Lovitt knew all along he had an ace in the hole. Just moments prior to the start of Tuesday’s race, Lovitt looked Fulcher in the eyes and told her “you are like a silent assassin, you have the ability to turn this meet upside down.”
And Fulcher did just that, finishing runner-up to Prep’s Julia Stradinger with a time of 21 minutes and some change on the revamped 3.1 mile trek. Less than 24 hours earlier, she helped the MRA cheerleading team claim a state championship – garnering All-Star laurels in the process.
“I knew Laurel was going to go crazy,” teammate Lydia Snopek said, smiling. “She came out today the most energized I’ve ever seen her in my life. That helped our confidence going into the race, and pumped us all up even more when we saw her up close to the lead.”
Said teammate Sloane Vinson: “What Laurel did today was insane. I can’t believe it. She’s always had that fighter’s spirit. You could tell when she showed up that she was going to go off. She was so psyched, I could just tell she was going to pull through for us.”
Fulcher wasn’t the only one. Far from it. One girl, no matter how special, doesn’t win a championship. This was indeed a collaborative team effort, as has been the case throughout MRA’s recent four-year run of dominance in the sport. The Lady Patriots had six girls finish in the Top 10, including freshman Abi Alden Benton who finished third – only about six seconds behind Fulcher. Vinson, a junior, was sixth, followed by senior Everett Heard in seventh, junior Snopek in eighth, and 7th-grader Presley Hughes in 10th.
All six of those made the All-State team by virtue of finishing in the top 10.
“Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion,” Lovitt said. “I think that’s what a lot of today was about. This has been by far the most challenging year we’ve had, with all the injuries and girls dealing with iron deficiency, and just all those sorts of things. But even though it was a tumultuous year, I knew what my girls had inside. I looked at the capabilities of everybody on our team, but especially the older girls . . . Laurel, Lydia, Sloane, and Everett . . .I wouldn’t trade those four runners for any four runners in the state. They live to run one race per year, so I knew it was going to be an exceptional effort today.”
As expected, Tuesday’s meet turned into a two-horse race. It was close throughout, as Jackson Prep placed four girls among the top nine and five of the top 11, led by Stradinger’s first-place finish. Prep runners placed fourth, fifth, ninth and 11th. However, it wasn’t enough to dethrone Pat’s Pats.
“I felt comfortable throughout the entire race,” Lovitt said. “I could tell by the way Laurel was running, I just knew she would be fine. I could tell Abi Alden was going to be fine, she was steady as she has been all year. Everett and Sloane actually pulled each other through some rough patches . . . they pulled each other along very nicely. And Snopek is just a robotic machine who keeps working and doesn’t get phased by anything.
“I felt good about it about the mile and a quarter point when I first saw them come through, and seeing our positions and seeing the look on their faces,” Lovitt continued. “That’s what I look at to judge how they are doing. The look and their stride, their body language. I felt good about that. I started feeling really good at the 2-mile point because I knew that’s when our strength would kick in.”
Snopek, for one, wasn’t so sure she was going to make it to the two-mile point early on the race. Same goes for Vinson.
“I was already very exhausted at the beginning of the race for some reason,” Snopek said.
Said Vinson: “I was hurting the whole time really bad. I really don’t know why. It may have been that my iron was low. It may have been the heat (temperature in the 80’s) and all, I don’t know.”
Both Vinson, a gritty competitor, and Snopek kept chugging along, however – each with their teammates and their team goal in mind. And that was winning a state championship for a fourth consecutive year, in the MAIS’ top division no less.
“It’s incredible to be able to do that for four years,” Benton said. “That’s very rare.”
Said Heard: “That means every single year of high school we won it so that’s awesome. It feels amazing.”
Heard, who has enjoyed a highly-decorative high school career in cross country and track and field, got emotional before the race. So emotional, in fact, she started crying when she made eye contact with Lovitt. It really hit her at that moment she was about to run the last cross country race in a MRA uniform. Heard was also shedding tears afterwards, but those were tears of joy.
“When I saw Coach Pat it made me cry,” said Heard, who battled her way back into shape after sustaining an ankle injury early in the first meet of the season. “But I wasn’t going to let that get in the way of winning another championship because that’s what we came here for. I had a good feeling we were going to win because we haven’t done anything else but win the last four years. Then I saw Laurel and how hyped she was, so I knew she was going to do great. I think yesterday (cheer competition) got her ready for today. She did so good yesterday. She was amazing, and she was amazing again today.”
There are a lot of good athletes at MRA spanning all sports, boys and girls. While one can make an argument for any one of those, Fulcher’s name certainly has to be in discussion. And early.
She played soccer early on at MRA, and returned to the basketball team this year after taking last year off. In fact, she practiced basketball late Tuesday afternoon, a few hours after the state cross country meet. She has basically dabbled in cross country the past few years because she’s such a competitor and she knew she could help the team win. However, speed is her thing. So she really excels on the track.
As a freshman, she set the tone early in helping MRA win the Overall State track and field championship by coming from behind to win the 300-meter hurdles, and did so again on the last leg of the 800-meter relay. She had a hand in 50 of the Lady Patriots’ points that weekend. The following year, as a sophomore, she had a hand in 44 points as MRA repeated.
“She’s the best all-around female athlete I’ve seen at MRA,” Lovitt said. “And she’s got twenty-something individual medallions to back me up on that.”
Crazily enough, Fulcher hurt her ankle during a football pep rally. She’s still not 100 percent.
“I still can’t do as much as I used to, especially in basketball,” she said. “Turning on it still hurts, and tumbling still hurts. It hurt during warmup today, then it hurt during the first couple of steps. But after that it didn’t hurt unless I stepped on a root or something like that. I just had to shake it off and keep going. I didn’t want to let my teammates down. This team has been together since basically the 8th grade, so we’re really close. We’re a family.”
As soon as it became clear that MRA was going to win, Fulcher made a beeline for Vinson and gave her a big hug.
“It was a great feeling knowing we had won it,” she said afterwards. “It feels good. It feels like a big moment.”
Indeed. So big, in fact, Snopek turned to her Bible for extra motivation prior to the race. She wrote a particular verse from Psalm on the inside of one of her arms just above the wrist. Although the ink was worn off by the conclusion of the meet, she said it helped carry her throughout the race.
“Psalm 27:3,” Snopek said. “It says though an army besiege me my heart will not fear; though war breaks out against me, even then I will be confident. Even in my biggest weakness, He’s my biggest strength. That’s what I thought about the whole time out there today. This has been one of the most bi-polar, up-and-down seasons we’ve ever had. We were all struggling at some point it seemed. It just wasn’t coming together. But I was confident it was all going to come together today, and it did. Everything played out like we hoped it would.”