JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The state cross country meet always brings out some of the gutsiest performances.
St. Louis University High sophomore Matt Hennessey was in a walking boot all week leading up to the Class 4 state meet, and his only run was the practice lap the Jr. Billikens took on the Oak Hills Golf Center course on Friday.
Hennessey was diagnosed with a possible stress fracture in his right foot immediately following the sectional race, but he was resolute that he could still be a contributing factor. Hennessey knew that SLUH had climbed the ranks to state contender because of its ability to run as a pack, and not only was he not going to miss out on the race, but he said he knew he could still contribute to the team’s score.
“It did hurt during the race, especially going into the third mile,” Hennessey said. “The pain is right on my growth plate, so I feel throbbing right on the top of my foot and a little on the ankle too.
“I was actually advised not to run for two weeks but I knew it was something I had to do and I really wanted to run at this meet. So I decided to take the chance and run this meet and take off right afterwards.”
Hennessey had been finishing as SLUH’s second or third scoring runner for most of the season. Despite the stress fracture, he still pushed his way into the SLUH pack and crossed the finish line as the Jr. Bills’ fifth runner in 39th with a time of 16:56.38. For good measure, the team’s sixth runner, senior Tom Laughlin was right there too in 41st (16:56.64).
The performance proved crucial as SLUH captured its fifth state title with 98 points, just three points ahead of the Blue Springs Wildcats. The Jr. Bills’ pack was there again with only a 45-second split between their first and fifth runners.
“It’s no different than what we’ve been trying to do is to try to find each other; it’s a little harder to find each other in a big race like this with lots of good runners in it,” SLUH coach Joe Porter said. “We knew we were going to have to move up throughout the race and put ourselves in a position, maybe not after the first mile, and charge the last mile and fight for every place.
The state title is SLUH’s third in six years and first since 2009. It’s also the first with Porter at the helm.
“Our job as coaches is to take care of the kids and make sure they have a good experience,” Porter said. “That’s what we have to focus on first. We knew they were going to run well today. We had a lot of confidence, and so did they.”
Senior Matt Nicholson led the Jr. Bills in eighth (16:13). He was a freshman the last time SLUH won, and he hopes this title will leave a lasting impression on the next wave of Jr. Bills like that 2009 title did on him.
“You feel (the pressure) because the other teams before you were really good also,” Nicholson said. “It’s not up front like you have to win. I still remember the day we won my freshman year, and it was really special. We have a lot of people here today and hopefully it’s something they will remember too.”
Nicholson said he was forced to get out hard at the start to clear the starting line with the team’s box in the middle of the field. He then relaxed and held his spot at about 20th until the last mile when he started picking off runners to climb into the top 10.
Tom Rubio grabbed his all-state finish of 23rd in 16:32, and then the chute was filled with Jr. Bills as Joe Archer and Shayn Jackson finished in 34th and 37th, respectively, just two spots ahead of Hennessey’s final scoring spot.
After the team’s trip to the podium, the squad doused Porter with a celebratory bath, but not before asking Porter if it was OK.
“They’re too polite,” Porter said. “They asked permission first. They wanted to do Gatorade, but I said no. I didn’t want to be sticky the rest of the day and trip home.”