A season like none other had an ending to a state championship race that invoked a rule that impacted the team standings in the Class 3 boys MSHSAA State Cross Country Championships.
Nearly two weeks has passed since the three-day event that was held at the Gans Creek Cross Country Course in Columbia but the memory of what happened on Day 1 hasn't been lost to a pair of schools in the St. Louis area.
A quick recap happened like this: Lutheran (St. Charles) Noah McMullen was stumbling toward the end of the 5K race and he fell down three different times as he neared the finish line.
Along came Nathaniel Doty of John Burroughs, who picked McMullen up and helped him cross the finish line. Doty was listed as 33rd and McMullen was 34th on the live results.
Doty, with about 700 meters left, was in 26th place and was chasing down an all-state medal in his final race. He decided to help a fellow runner, eschewing a chance to get on the podium.
The quick decision had ripple effects on three teams that ended up causing a chain reaction in the standings and spots on the podium.
Lutheran went from winning the state championship to taking second place as McMullen was disqualified for receiving help - a ruling consistent with the NFHS rules. Instead of beating Fatima by two points, Fatima moved up to the top spot on the podium and Lutheran took second place - a big jump from ninth the year before. Burroughs took fourth place, but had Doty not stopped to help it was feasible to see the Bombers taking third place instead of Maryville.
The overarching sentiment is Doty's sportsmanship should be recognized in a flurry of unfortunate events.
"I talked to the Lutheran coach, who was absolutely gracious," Burroughs coach Christine Bugnitz said. "I reached out to her the next day and her response back to me was it was far more important what my kid did than the race itself. I was relieved by that and pleased by that. It is a weird situation.
Bugnitz didn't know what transpired at the finish line until after the meet was over as she came up to the boys to talk to them. She watched the video and saw McMullen, who was between ninth and 12th place through the first 4,000 meters, struggling to finish the race. Even when Doty first started helping McMullen, he fell again. Then Doty eventually dragged a competitor across the finish line.
"Cross country is one of the sports that always emphasizes sportsmanship to all our athletes," Lutheran coach Elizabeth Fruend said. "Cross country runners, as you well know, are prime examples on how athletes should treat each other. Both runners were penalized. Noah was our third runner to finish and he was DQ'd and we lost his place. Nathaniel Doty lost about eight places and points; John Burroughs would've been third and they got fourth. Noah is trying his hardest to finish and Nathaniel, my gosh, what a class act and selfless athlete. We should all treat each other like that. His sportsmanship and the sacrifice. He gave himself up to help another athlete. I think we want athletes to treat each other like that. To lose a state title on a technicality, it was an unfortunate situation that occurred."
The NFHS changed the rule before this season, which meant Doty still got to count in the standings and kept his place. In past years, he and McMullen would have both been disqualified.
It is a rule that both Fruend and Bugnitz say should be looked at more in depth.
In the immediate aftermath of the change, two things happened that stuck out to each coach for a different reason.
For Fruend and Lutheran, it was an appeal to the rules committee for the disqualification and a quick and succinct no was replied.
"I wish we could've gotten the four teams involved, get the head coaches and officials and talk about it instead of such a quick ruling," she said. "Go through the situation and maybe that (the DQ) could've occurred but maybe the coaches and officials could come to some agreement on this; I don't know what the right thing is but I'm proud of my team. I'm proud of John Burroughs. I'm proud of Fatima."
Bugnitz was less than pleased when she heard what happened to Doty at the finish line. An official sternly talked to him about picking up McMullen and told Doty that action caused Lutheran to not win a state championship - which would've been the first for the boys or girls program.
"They could've pulled him aside in such a way it wasn't in front of all of his teammates," Bugnitz said. "They were excited for winning fourth place and he was scolded. There is no call for that. Pull him aside and tell him. He didn't even say it was a nice thing. He told him how he ruined the other team's first place. It wasn't right and it could've been handled far differently."
What Doty did didn't surprise Bugnitz knowing his personality and the action he did was the first time the team captains told the coach when she arrived at the finish line. Doty initially thought his coach might be mad at him.
"I was so stunned at him; the integrity, the nobility of it," Bugnitz said. "That is one of the most incredible things I heard. I knew how he sacrificed. He is a kid that just always has a different perspective on life. He is just very set and has a good moral compass. He is an altruism that I haven't seen in a kid that age. He was going to do it. He passed up one boy and when he got to Noah, he said 'Coach, I couldn't pass up the second kid, I had to help him.' I'm just really proud of him."
"I just wanted to help him get across," Doty told Paul Halfacre of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after the race. "We had faced them in districts and they're just fantastic runners."
Bugnitz noted in the days after the race, she received plenty of emails and text of congratulations about the noble act of Doty.
"I had kids I coached years and years ago sending me text messages," she said. "One of the kids even said coach, 'what you need to realize is that alums from across the globe have been texting each other about that.' That is pretty cool."
The action of Doty had a lasting impact the rest of the weekend. For the next eight races held between Friday and Saturday, prior to the gun going off in the Class 1, 2, 4 and 5 event, the head officials warned the runners not to pick up any runners that may fall down in the race.
There were 841 runners in the five boys races. A handful had DNF (did not finish) next to their name on the standings. There was only one with DQ - McMullen - between the five classes.
"At the end of the day life lessons were learned but the kid from John Burroughs, he is the real hero here," Fruend said. "He really is. He was selfless and sacrificed. I think he could've gotten 25th place. He was right around 25th or 26th and he came in 33rd just to help one of our runners. That is truly amazing."
The third team, Fatima, won the Class 3 title after winning back-to-back titles in Class 2 in 2018 and 2019. Overall, the Comets have brought home a trophy from the championships every year since 2011.
"Ultimately, I feel the same way about the race after they switched the results as I did when we were second," Fatima coach Marcus Bridges told Greg Jackson of the Jefferson City Tribune. "I felt like the kids had a tremendous race today. They pushed really hard in the second half of the race. I'm just proud of their effort. It's an unfortunate situation that happened for Lutheran, but I'm proud of the way our kids pushed through the race today.
"I became aware that there was an issue maybe 10 seconds before they changed the score. I'm sure the (John Burroughs) athlete thought he was helping and doing the right thing. Unfortunately, that's an automatic disqualification."
Fruend said the team understands what happened and why the results changed like they did. She got an email from Bridges the day after the race.
"All season long we were fixed on becoming state champions," Fruend said. "Cross country provides life lessons and teaching moments. It is always taking place and this was one of the prime moments. I feel my boys were a class act. They congratulated Fatima and did it with sincerity. I was proud of how they handled the situation."
The Lutheran coach later learned how much the win meant for Fatima.
The top spot on the podium came almost four months after a tragic loss for the Comets, who lost senior Caden Haslag. The 17-year-old died in a head-on collision on July 15, leaving a big hole in the varsity lineup for Bridges and the Comets.
Haslag was an all-state cross country runner and was an all-district in javelin. He was a leader by example, never missing workouts and qualified for state in each of his first three seasons of cross country.
"Our team wasn't the same this season without Caden, but his presence and influence has remained with us every day," Bridge said. "At the conclusion of the State race our boys were pretty raw with emotion that had nothing to do with the outcome of the race but rather the finality of a hard-fought season."
In one of the photos on the podium, the Comets all held up one finger, not to indicate winning a championship and being No. 1, but rather a signal to Haslag, who they all knew as looking down on them.
When Fruend learned of the importance of the title to Fatima, it became another life lesson: sometimes winning isn't everything.
"Fatima lost one of its athletes this summer ... that pulled at my heartstrings," she said. "Oh my. You got parents who lost a son. You got a coach that lost an athlete. You have a team that lost a teammate. It puts it all in perspective. Fatima was running for the memory of one of their fallen teammates. If you are going to lose on a technicality in that situation, I'm glad it was Fatima that won."