The final straightaway covers the remaining 100 yards that high school cross-country runners are required to navigate before crossing the finish line at Ponaganset High’s Covered Bridge Trail course.
For top runners like East Greenwich seniors Reese Fahys and Rylee Shunney, the aforementioned straightaway that’s typically supposed to serve as a fitting coronation – picture cheers building to a feverish pitch as they ring from the nearby stands – was the site of a crucial episode that helped tell the story of how the Avengers captured the girls’ state title on what was an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon earlier this month.
Setting the scene, Fahys finished in fifth place with Shunney right behind in sixth. There’s working off each other … then there’s the backstory that helps further validate what East Greenwich was able to achieve as a T-E-A-M.
The 70-degree temperatures took a toll on multiple runners, including Fahys. Her legs began to wobble with roughly 60 yards separating her from finishing. The pursuit of capturing a third straight RIIL individual cross-country title was removed from the equation, shifting the focus to East Greenwich’s chase for state glory.
Could Fahys summon the energy that wasn’t sapped due to dehydration by getting back on her feet and making it across? When Shunney approached the final straightaway and saw that her teammate was down, her mind flooded with a thousand different thoughts.
“There was definitely concern,” said Shunney, recalling the scene while sitting at a table with Fahys, fellow senior captain Morgan Walsh, and head coach Erin Terry. “I contemplated catching up and trying to help Reese cross the finish line.”
Rules prohibit a runner from lending a helping hand to another during the heat of competition. There are no exemptions – even when that runner who’s clearly fighting something happens to be your teammate.
The strategy Shunney opted for was to slide back just enough so that Fahys could safely make it across before getting medical attention. The two didn’t finish the race together – Shunney (19:19.6) was three seconds behind Fahys (19:16.6).
Nevertheless, the pursuit of achieving a state team championship remained firmly intact.
“Her safety and her crossing the finish line were my top priorities,” said Shunney, who plans to add more chapters to her running career at UMass Amherst. “I kept looking behind me to make sure no one was coming for the sake of placement, but the state championship wasn’t on my mind at that point when I saw Reese. I wanted to make sure I did what I could to help her out.”
On a day when emotions created a whirling dervish for reasons that no one could have forecasted, the heart that the Avengers displayed on their way to being announced as the top finisher in the team standings served as a fitting capper. All of the efforts put in over 13 demanding weeks had given way to satisfied smiles as the Avengers accepted their state championship medals and plaques.
“It’s the product of work and everything it takes to get to this point. They were happy and proud to do it for each other, and to be there together,” said Terry. “Once they found out they had won, the emotion was greater compared to the previous two years when Reese was the individual champion.”
The gutsy performance by Fahys, coupled with Shunney earning yet another First-Team All-State honor, marked a strong start in chasing after a state title. Watching and cheering from the sidelines, Walsh noted that it was a tough race for a number of the East Greenwich harriers. Would the team’s depth grab enough important points to fend off the rest of the field? The math to figure out the top team had changed in the wake of the scare involving Fahys, one of the pre-race favorites.
Resoundingly, three juniors answered the bell by finishing inside the top 30. Alicia Chen placed 17th followed by Ava Peters (22nd) and Celina Caliri (26th). When Caliri was safely across as the fifth and all-important final runner, East Greenwich submitted a team score of 67 points that proved 22 points in the clear of second-place Cumberland.
“I remember Alicia coming up to me. Her brother had run the numbers and said that we had definitely won,” said Walsh.
For Fahys, it was about sticking to a personal motto at a time that was downright alarming for her.
“Finish on empty,” is what Fahys firmly believes. “We definitely put it all out there and ended up with a big win.
“Winning the state championship was our big goal this season,” added Fahys, who days after her scare at states signed her National Letter of Intent to continue her running career at Providence College.
As for the unexpected obstacle the Avengers needed to overcome before learning the rewards system was dialed up in their favor, Fahys noted that winning as a unit has a way of making the pain seem less intense.
“Individual wins are special, but you always want to put the team first,” said Fahys, who did her part in helping the Avengers finish on top by surviving the most grueling 60 yards of her life. “When you create a bond with your teammates and you’re able to achieve the goal that everyone has in common, it’s something that’s really special.”
Brendan McGair is a sportswriter and columnist with the Pawtucket Times and the Woonsocket Call. A graduate of Providence College, McGair is a five-time recipient of the R.I. Sports Writer of the Year Award as voted by the National Sports Media Association (NSMA).
Follow McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03 and on Instagram @bwmcgair.