There was anger for Joey Pace as he spent last week preparing for the cross country state championships.
A week earlier, Pace entered the Region 1-2A division meet as the overall favorite, but a pulled muscle midway through the race hindered him, and the Urchins finished second in the meet behind Potts Camp. That result pushed him through workouts, and last Saturday, Pace returned to top form, finishing sixth overall in the state and leading East Union to the 2A state championship title.
“I was favored to win, and when I was in that race, chasing down the leader, I pulled a muscle in my side,” Pace said of the district meet. “When I got to the finish line, Jordan (Salmon) had to help me to the tent because I passed out. When I came back, they told me what happened, and I realized my goal to be consistent all year long was ruined.”
“After division, I went home and I pushed all emotions aside. I started preparing for state, and I was angry, not sad, and I let that anger push me through the run at state.”
Defeating J.F. Kennedy High School by four points, the Urchins brought home the state title with Pace, Zach Rowan and Cody Bo Dillard earning All-State honors. Pace edged Rowan by two seconds, finishing with a time of 19:05, while Rowan finished seventh at 19:07. Dillard’s time of 19:39 earned him the final All-State spot at 14th, and he was immediately followed by teammates Brett Rakestraw and Christian McClellan.
“We ran our best race of the year; they ran with a lot of heart, and it was a real team effort, one through seven, even though our six and seven didn’t factor into our score, they affected the other team’s scores,” East Union coach Nathan McLellen said. “They ran as a team and came out on top.”
Running for his mother
Pace has been a breakthrough runner for the Urchins this season, but his story began roughly two years ago.
Pace’s mother, Carrie Seawright, was diagnosed with cancer, and the freshman has used her illness to motivate him as a runner. The treatment sent Pace and his family to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota last summer, and the three months by his mother’s side was all the inspiration he needed to perform well this year.
“I decided that if she was going to fight to come back and watch me run, then I was going to do my best to train and give her something to be proud of,” Pace said. “I told myself that as long as she keeps fighting, I’m going to keep running.”
Pace has led the Urchins throughout the season, finishing first and leading East Union to team titles at both the Southern Tees Challenge and the Union County Championships. While his finish at district was uncharacteristic, he made a promise to McLellen that he would make up for it at state.
“He was motivated by the poor performance at division, and he told me all last week that he would make up for it,” he said. “He ran with a lot of heart and a little anger, in a good way, and had a fabulous race.”
On Sunday, Pace was able to visit with his mother before she left for another trip to Minnesota. This time he was able to show her a video from his finish in Clinton as well as the team’s trophy.
“She’s kept me going when I’ve wanted to give up,” Pace said. “To show her that trophy and to see her hold it meant everything to me. She’s the reason I’ve kept fighting.”
Carrying on the tradition
The Urchins’ championship is the first for the boys since 2009, but the fourth consecutive for the school, as back-to-back titles for the girls preceded this year’s win. McLellen said a good mix of youth and veterans is the reason for this year’s championship.
“We have some guys that have never won a state championship mixed in with some veterans,” he said. “Those old guys led the way and showed the young ones how to be state champions in practice and on the course. It was a mixture of youth and veterans that helped put us on top.”
For Pace and the Urchins the win etches their place in school history, and the pressure they have carried this season is finally out of the way.
“It’s amazing to know next year our picture will be on the wall,” Pace said. “When they called out second place, I knew we won, and that pressure was gone. We did this, and it’s an amazing feeling.”
Union County’s finish at state
Myrtle’s Kitana High earned an individual title, finishing first overall in the 1A girls race.
Defeating last year’s individual champion, West Union’s Savannah Shirley, High earned top honors as an eighth grader with a time of 16:30.
Shirley was second to High with a time of 17:01, and Sydney Roberts was Ingomar’s top runner in seventh with a time of 17:27. Other All-State runners for 1A girls include West Union’s Samantha Bridges, Myrtle’s Megan Lowery and Ellie Fitts and Ingomar’s Kelly Mayo.
Tupelo Christian Prep won the 1A girls title, edging West Union by four points, 55-59. Myrtle finished in third with 63 points, and Ingomar finished in fifth with 146 points.
Ingomar’s Tyler Warren finished his impressive junior campaign with a third place finish in the 1A boys race. Warren was the top Union County runner at 18:18, and was joined by West Union’s Hunter Jennings as an All-State runner. French Camp had the top two runners in the race, winning the state title.
Hickory Flat’s Gracie Pipkin was the top girls finisher in 2A, leading the Lady Rebels to a second place finish as a team. New Site won the team title, and East Union finished in third. Area All-State runners include Pipkin, Megan Roth, Nikki Vick and Anna Ostrowski of Hickory Flat and East Union’s Emily Bruce, who led the Lady Urchins, finishing 11th overall.
Top runners for New Albany were William Harding and Laura Creekmore. Pontotoc girls and St. Stanislaus boys won state titles in 4A.