By COLIN STEVENS
As Alana Ebbitt, Caroline Schemel and Shelby Stouffer left Greencastle-Antrim's front parking lot onto Ridge Road for a light run (if you consider a 50-minute jog light) on a dreary Wednesday afternoon, no one was bothered by the weather.
The rain was actually welcomed. Running in the cool air is less strenuous, and Ebbitt doesn't mind splashing in a few puddles.
While they run for fun, all three freshmen have a strong competitive edge and don't back down from a challenge.
"They take great pride in what they do," Greencastle coach Rich Secrest said. "It's a craft for them. They're highly competitive. If you put those three girls out on a checkers game, they're going to want to beat each other and beat whoever is in front of them."
The trio has made an immediate impact for the Blue Devils, who finished 7-0 in dual meets and won the MPC Colonial Division title (6-0) with a team that is comprised of only freshmen and sophomores. This comes only six years after the Blue Devils couldn't compete for a division championship because the team only had one girl.
The rise for the Blue Devils cross country team began about four years ago. It was the first year that G-A had a middle school team, which in turn helped raise interest in the sport earlier than before.
"I think that's the reason we're benefiting so much right now," Secrest said. "We're getting girls in middle school before they make their decision and we're actually part of the choice.
Lauren Powers, a sophomore runner for the Blue Devils, started running in middle school. At first she was reluctant, but after some encouragement from her mother she joined the team.
Three years later she is still running. Part of the reason is the unity she feels on the team.
"It makes us all close because we work hard together," she said. "We're always cheering each other on and encouraging each other in the workouts. If one of us passes one another, we're like, 'Come on, finish it up with me.' We're all pretty encouraging. It keeps us going."
Unity is important with such a small team. There are only six girls on the team, so everyone has to be clicking. More importantly, everyone has to stay healthy.
The team lost three runners to injury early in the season and Nikki Garns won't be available for this weekend's MPC race, leaving Greencastle with five healthy runners.
In cross country, a team's score is calculated by the positions of the top five finishers. If something goes wrong for one racer, it can affect the whole team.
"If one person gets injured or doesn't do very well, or I got lost last week on the course, then there's no one to take their place," Schemel said.
Schemel has been having the strongest season of all the Blue Devil runners. She has consistently been G-A's top finisher and has four first-place and two second-place overall finishes.
Last Tuesday the Blue Devils won the Colonial Division crown for the second straight season with victories against Waynesboro and Boiling Springs. The Bubblers' Meredith Speakman took first overall, but after that it was a wave of Devils.
Schemel finished in second, followed by Stouffer in third, Garns in fourth and Ebbitt in fifth. Caitlyn Hetrick and Powers also placed in the top 10, finishing in eighth and ninth place, respectively.
"I definitely think we can keep improving," Ebbitt said. "But I don't know how good we can be. We're definitely going to get better, though."
Said Stouffer, "It's cool because we're so young and we're doing so good. It will be kind of cool to see how we do when we get older and we're better runners. We'll have a better team."
The ceiling is certainly high for how good this team could be in years to come. And if interest can continue to grow at the middle school level and transfer into high school, improvement seems inevitable.
"I don't have a crystal ball, but I hope that this year motivates young girls out there who haven't made a decision, or are good at running and love to run, to come out and give it a chance," Secrest said. "It takes a strong will, a strong mind and a very courageous person to come out and do something like cross country, plus do the work for it. I hope it translates into great kids like we already have."
Colin Stevens can be reached at email@example.com and 262-4819.