Entering his 16th season at the helm of the Rock Falls girls cross country program, Mark Truesdell made it crystal clear what he expects for the 2018 season.
“Our coach announced to the entire school that we were going to win a state championship this year,” junior Bailee Fortney said. “Those are some high expectations, and we know we can do it. But we have a target on our back.”
If a team doesn’t have a chance or much to look forward to during a season, pressure never enters the equation. Rock Falls, on the other hand, has a sense of urgency after a seventh-place finish at last year’s Class 1A state meet.
“I tell the kids that people are more afraid of success than they are of failure,” Truesdell said. “I go home every night excited, but also think about what could go wrong. We have to do everything right all the time. It’s harder, but it’s more fun.”
The Rockets will rely on a core group of four athletes in an attempt to achieve its ultimate goal. Fortney, Alex Gomez, Erin Porter and Bryahna Ganther lean on hard work, talent, and a strong bond they’ve developed in the last year.
“There’s definitely pressure, but I think as a team and us as a foursome, we can talk to each other about it and manage it well,” Gomez said. “We push each other at practice, and I think that’s what keeps us going.”
The quartet helped Rock Falls to a first-place finish at last year’s First to the Finish Invitational at Detweiller Park in Peoria, and transferred the momentum from the fall to the spring. Fortney, Ganther, Gomez and Porter teamed up to give the Rockets a fourth-place finish in the 3,200-meter relay at the Class 2A state track & field meet.
“I think it gave us more of a chip on our shoulder because we didn’t finish where we were supposed to,” Truesdell said. “It’s about finishing what we’ve set out to do. It’s beneficial to have been in that meat-grinder of 2A for track. Coming back down to 1A for cross country, it gives the kids a little more confidence.”
Fortney, Gomez and Porter had already established themselves a season ago as sophomores, but Ganther stepped up as the Rockets’ missing piece in the relay.
“It makes me want the [cross country] state championship a little more,” Ganther said. “It gave me a lot more confidence.”
Rock Falls stuck with the small schools for a second straight cross country season, staying under the 2A cutoff by just two kids.
“We were definitely very excited about that, because we’re looking to win a state championship,” Porter said. “That would be much more difficult in 2A.”
Each member of the Rockets’ core four brings something a little different to the team.
Gomez is a grinder, providing a calming influence while being extremely reliable. Truesdell said that “she may be the shortest physically, but her psychological precense is the biggest.”
Gomez was Rock Falls’ top finisher at the state cross country meet last year, taking 16th with a time of 18:11 a week after winning the Oregon Sectional title.
She did not compete at the Rocket Run on August 21 due to a calf strain, but is on track to make an impact this weekend at the First to the Finish Invitational.
“It was definitely a setback, but I feel like I’m getting stronger every day,” Gomez said. “I’ll be back at my normal training pretty soon, and I’m excited to make my season debut Saturday.”
Ganther was the Rockets’ second-best runner at last year’s state meet with a 26th-place finish. This season, she finished second at the Rocket Run with a time of 19:48.
“I just keep pushing,” Ganther said. “I try to stay up with the top people every single day.”
Like Ganther, Fortney shows flashes of her unmistakable talent at most meets. She raced to a third-place finish at the Rocket Run, but it’s last year’s state meet that provides her with motivation. Fortney finished a second behind Gomez at the Oregon Sectional, but collapsed due to exhaustion midway through the state meet.
“We were going for a state championship last year, too,” Fortney said. “Something bad happened and it just didn’t work out. This year, we want it even more.”
Porter brings a rare mix of grit and mental toughness that are key to success in a grueling sport. She finished 28th at the state meet last year, and 10th at the Rocket Run almost 3 weeks ago.
“Staying positive throughout the day is key,” Porter said. “You can’t talk yourself up too much and be over-confident. You just stay relaxed. When I stay positive, my run goes well.”
Rock Falls will need a fifth runner, and Truesdell is confident several athletes can rise to the occasion.
State competitors Sydney Reyes and Belen Mendoza return, as well as Kasey Estrella – who cut off 2 minutes from her Rocket Run time. Senior Xheneta Bequiri turned heads at the Rocket Run with a sixth-place finish in her first high school cross country meet. Sophomore Leighah Conkling and freshman Calin Gaulrapp also provide depth for the Rockets.
Rock Falls is currently No. 2 in the Class 1A ILXCTF rankings behind defending champion Tolono Unity, and has already leapfrogged St. Joseph-Ogden.
During Brayden Hamblen’s senior cross country season, Truesdell – who also serves as the boys coach at Rock Falls – asked him whether he was going to be a state champ or state chump.
Hamblen went on to win the 1A title. On Thursday, Truesdell echoed the exact same words to promising junior Dawson Smith, with some of his female athletes taking notice.
“That’s the same mentality we’re taking with the girls this year,” Truesdell said. “This is the deepest team I’ve ever had on the girls side. When you have this much talent, you need to perform. We got the break being in 1A, and all the pieces are here. We just need to execute.”