BENZONIA — Whitehall’s girls cross-country team entered last Saturday’s Division 2 regional meet at Benzie Central thinking it might be the last time they all ran together. They were ranked outside the top three, and their top runner, Ryann Jibson, was only seeded #11. State qualification for the team seemed like a long shot, and it was not locked in for Jibson, who made the trip last year.
The Vikings, though, ran the race of their lives and finished third to earn a bid to state. Jibson, who had never broken 19 minutes in a race before, blasted through that barrier with a time of 18:26.98, setting a new school record and placing third overall. Her record time was three seconds faster than the previous mark, set by Aubree Danielson in 2005.
“Us screaming and going crazy, you would’ve thought we won,” Jibson said Wednesday after practice. “We were hugging each other and crying. That was something that seemed so far away. But we wanted it so bad.”
Jibson was far from the only Viking to come up huge at the regional. Remarkably, all five Whitehall scorers set new personal best times, and in fact all five crushed their previous PRs by at least 38 seconds.
“It felt kind like an out-of-body experience, almost,” Vikings’ coach Courtney Shear said. “It seemed very surreal, like, ‘Is this actually happening?’ We kept looking at the scoreboard to double-check that it was real.”
Ariana Treat and Isabelle Uganski also medaled for the Vikes, finishing at about the same time. Treat clocked in at 19:27.0 and Uganski was at 19:27.2, and the two runners placed 13th and 14th respectively, beating their previous PRs by 44 (Uganski) and 45 (Treat) seconds.
Hayli Fagan took 30th place for Whitehall, also easily placing a new personal best time of 20:43.2 (38 seconds better than she’d ever run before), and Olivia Tjapkes rounded out the scoring by placing 48th and running 42 seconds faster than her previous PR, ending with a time of 21:52.9. Also for Whitehall, Bailey Pierson was 50th (21:58.2, easily a season best) and Neva Hundt placed 58th (22:16.95).
The day belonged to Jibson, though, for whom breaking the school record, given that she would have to better her PR by nearly a minute to have a chance at it, wasn’t even on the radar entering the day. It didn’t occur to Shear, either, until she watched Jibson arrive at the two-mile mark of the Benzie Central course.
“She came to the two-mile way sooner than she usually does, and then my mind started thinking, wow, this could be something special right now,” Shear said. “Later we looked on Athletic.net and confirmed, but it wasn’t really on anyone’s minds (before). It started to cross my mind when she came to the two-mile at a time that was very unlike her but really good.”
Even after looking at Athletic.net’s listing of the WHS records, Jibson said she didn’t really believe she’d broken the record until former Viking coach Kathy Hector texted Jibson’s mom later that evening to congratulate her.
“It’s just so crazy, because I never saw myself doing that,” Jibson said. “It’s just weird to think of myself like I’m just as good as Aubree Danielson and those girls. It’s just weird.”
Shear said she had a notion that Jibson might eventually get to where she got last Saturday, but the fact that she accomplished it as a sophomore has reset her thoughts on Jibson’s ceiling as a runner.
“I think it changed both our perspectives,” Shear said. “Now, instead of 18:59, now we’re thinking 17:59. How low can she go?”
Jibson is the fastest Viking and has been for two seasons, but she said she also considers herself the baby of the group; only the freshman Treat is behind her in school. However, as the #1 runner, she is also the de facto team leader. She said summer training with Treat and Uganski helped all three of them have better seasons this year. The role of leader is one Shear said Jibson has taken to very well.
“She’s kind and gentle and a graceful leader,” Shear said. “She leads definitely out of respect and not out of fear. I think her bubbly nature draws people in naturally, and she’s very humble. I think all of that combined really makes her an awesome leader, an awesome friend, and awesome to coach.”
As the team approached this weekend’s meet, they were ranked just inside the top 20, Shear said. The last time Whitehall made it to state, in 2017, it finished 24th. The Vikes would like to do better this time around.
For Jibson, the goal is to make all-state. She ran at state last season as a freshman and placed 114th, but as last Saturday showed, she’s a much different runner now than she was then. While she’s focused on her individual goal, she also hopes Saturday’s experience makes the team better for 2020, a season in which everybody that ran at regionals will return with the exception of the graduating Uganski.
“Before Benzie, I didn’t think I could make all-state, but now I think it’s definitely something I could achieve if I went for it,” Jibson said. “This is everyone’s first state except for Bailey (Pierson) and I. So we want to show everyone what it’s like and grow more as a team.”
The Whitehall boys finished sixth, and junior Addison Bluhm earned a spot at state by taking 14th place. His time was 16:40.6. Like his teammates on the girls’ team, he beat his previous personal best, this time by 21 seconds. Bluhm will make his state debut, and Shear said she hopes Bluhm runs a personal best.
Riley Buys finished in 28th place at regionals, posting a time of 17:19.1. Jacob Bush and Carter McElroy finished consecutively, Bush in 42nd place (17:55.7) and McElroy in 43rd (17:58.8). All three of those runners all achieved new personal bests.
Parker Holt was the fifth scorer for Whitehall, coming in 57th place (18:15.2).