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CMHS cross country star shines bright at state championships

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Jones sets another personal best mark; places in top 15 in state's Class 1A

By Sean Arnold

For the second year in a row, Chiefland Middle High School’s Lauren Jones competed in the Class 1A girls’ Florida High School Cross Country State Championships in Tallahassee.

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In her second trip, Nov. 11, she shaved 1 minute, 48 seconds off her time in the 5K, moving up 52 places to come in at No. 14 in the state in her class.

Jones notched a time of 19:46.17, just 15 seconds off pace from earning her a medal, which go to the top 10 individual finishers. It was a personal record for the rising star.

The achievement is all the more remarkable for the fact that Jones, an eighth-grader, is not even in high school yet, and has only been seriously competing in cross country for a couple of years.

Jones said she was able to estimate where she stood among the pack at different points of the race. Her father displayed a dry-erase board that showed how many seconds she was off pace of the runners in front of her.

“I knew I could shave off that much because of my times this season, and I wasn’t hurt going in like I was last season,” Jones said. “I just had to push myself.

“It was very different this time,” she added. “Going into it last year, I was more nervous because it was all new to me. But this year I knew what I could do.”

The state meet was hosted at Apalachee Regional Park, and included 176 runners, including runners who advanced as individuals from regionals as well as those part of top-finishing teams. The Lady Indians advanced as a team to their regional meet in Lakeland, while Jones’ teammate Banner Hodge, a seventh-grader, also qualified individually for regionals.

Jones ran the course the Thursday before the race, then stay overnight, with school out Friday for Veterans Day. She gave it another walkthrough Friday, identifying potential trouble spots. She says the course is somewhat comparable to the notoriously tough district meet course at St. Francis in Gainesville, with its hilly and woodsy terrain.

“It’s a grass and shell course with a lot of downhills,” Jones said of the state meet.

She also had to adapt to the colder weather, but said she was zoned in and oblvious the conditions by start time.

Knowing her improved average pace this season, and having a better idea this time around of the competition and course she’d face, Jones was aiming for a top-20 finish.

It wasn’t going to be easy, however, as the competition in her class was even better this year.

Oak Hall (Gainesville) senior Grace Blair collected her second-straight Class 1A state title with a time of 18:15.80. Jones finished second to Blair at their district meet in Gainesville last month.

Though it was a long road trip, with a 7:30 a.m. start, Jones enjoyed extensive support at the meet, as she was joined by teammates, coaches, family and assistant principal Aaron Halderman.

“That really says a lot about the team as a whole,” CMHS coach Lynda Aldrich said. “I consider my group of athletes to be more like family than teammates. They really are a tight-knit group and push each other do their best both at practice and at meets.

“I was extremely proud of each and every one of my runners this year and can’t wait to see what next year has in store.”

Jones’ family also brought the famous “fathead” cutout photo of Lauren’s head, which they wield at meets to let her know where her No. 1 fans are watching from.

“It’s crazy to think all these people are coming up there to watch you run for like 20 minutes,” Jones said. “It makes me feel good that I have people that wanted to come up there and support me. I especially liked it because our vice principal came up and show support.”

Jones plans to take a brief break before picking her training back up. She said she’ll run track in the spring to help her stay in shape before getting into her summer training.

“She is very hardworking and a very dedicated athlete,” Aldrich said. “You can see it paid off this season with her not only making it to state for the second time in a row, but her picking up 52 positions from last year against what I feel was tougher competition this season.

“She is simply amazing, to say the least!”