By Brian Dzenis
Qualifying for state never gets old for Western Reserve’s Ashleigh Rowley.
She’ll represent the Blue Devils for the fourth year in a row at the Division III cross country state tournament in Hebron on Saturday.
Across her athletic career, Rowley had qualified for state seven times. In addition to her cross country accolades, she’s qualified in indoor track twice and track and field once.
“I don’t think people realize how hard it is,” Rowley said. “It could be raining or there’s a steep hill you have to climb at the end of the race or it’s freezing or really hot.
“There’s a lot of hard work to put in to get those results.”
Rowley owns every Blue Devils cross country record, plus the one-mile and two-mile records in track. She heads to Hebron after taking second in the regional last week in Boardman, finishing eight seconds behind Grand Valley’s Grace Steimle.
Western Reserve’s cross country team started in 2011 after going dark for the previous four years. Coach Kevin Conway said his first team had only two girls and two boys. Rowley’s success has given the program legitimacy.
“It’s very beneficial to the younger kids, she’s a leader,” Conway said. “I always say ‘this isn’t my team, it’s your team.’ You have athletes who take over that role.
“She’s always been one of the leaders to take over at a young age,” he said.
Western Reserve had no cross country program when Rowley’s mother suggested she try track in seventh grade. She didn’t like it at first, but joined a running club in eighth grade.
“It was just being with friends until I started getting good in 8th grade,” Rowley said. “Freshman year, I had to choose between cross country and volleyball. I love sports and I wanted to compete in college and I knew nobody was giving a volleyball scholarship to somebody really short.”
Making state as a freshman and taking 31st place sold her on the sport. She’s ended every cross country season the same way, with a new personal best and better place. She went from 31 to 18 as a sophomore and took ninth as a junior. She’s looking for a top three finish and Hebron’s National Trail Raceway has become her favorite course.
“It’s very flat and it’s very fast. It’s my favorite course because it’s one big loop, Rowley said. “It’s not spectator-friendly, but it’s runner-friendly and it’s easily the best course we run on.”
Rowley has offers from various colleges, but will not sign this month. She’s going through the application process for Navy, her favorite among her suitors.
“I liked how strict it was and I do want to serve my country,” she said.
To go there, she needs to pass a physical aptitude test and earn a nomination from her local senator or state representative. She’s meeting with Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Youngstown) in December.
After taking second in the Div. III regional, she’ll try and make the most of final run in Hebron.
“I think the senior mentality will kick in for me toward the end of the race, Rowley said.”
AROUND THE AREA
Who’s not going is almost as big a deal as who is with McDonald.
For the first time in 18 years, McDonald won’t have its boys team at the tournament, but the girls team will be there.
“It’ll be strange, but it doesn’t add any more pressure for the girls, they’re pretty focused on what they want to accomplish,” McDonald coach Mike Richards said. “They think it’s an honor just to continue the streak of a McDonald team being there.”
The Blue Devils have their own potential absence to deal with. Malina Mitchell, The Vindicator’s reigning Athlete of the Year in cross country and track, suffered a broken metatarsil two weeks ago, Richards said. She’s stayed in shape by training in a pool and will be on the roster in Hebron, but she’s questionable at best.
“There’s probably a five percent chance,” Richards said. “I’m not sure [if she can race]. We could put her on the line just to see what happens.”
Some of the runners who will have to step up will be Anna Guerra, who took seventh in the regional, and junior Claire Hoffman. Ally Jamison and Alyssa Lynch have state experience.
“We’d like to go down and show that we’re more than one girl, maybe we can surprise some people,” Richards said. “We’re ranked seventh and we’d like to beat that.”
Elsewhere in Div. III girls, East Palestine’s Alexis Cunningham rounds out the area female qualifiers.
Area distance running powerhouse Maplewood headlines the boys side in Div. III. The Rockets are coming off a regional title and Nick Cowger was the best area runner, taking third in his field. Mineral Ridge’s Palmer Cameron, Mathew’s Kenny Wallace and Badger’s Ty Reeher also are going to state.
In Div. II, Poland’s Andrew Comstock won’t be going to state alone this year. After competing as an individual in 2015, his team took sixth in regional to go as a group. It will be the first time Poland goes to state as a team since 1997 and the third time in program history.
“It was great being there [last year], but it was weird going to the starting line and not seeing the team behind you,” Comstock said. “This year, I’m excited because I have all the guys that I’ve been running with a training with for the last six-to-eight years with me.”
The Div. II individual qualifiers are Grand Valley’s John Steimle and Jefferson’s Brandon Park.
No area Div. I teams qualified, but Boardman, Canfield and Howland will have individual representatives. At the regional, the Spartans’ Chris Butler was the best, taking ninth. Canfield’s Giovanni Copploe and Howland took 17th and 21st, respectively.