SALADO — While most people are barely waking up at 5:30 a.m., on any given school day in the fall you can find the Salado High School cross country team out practicing before the sun even comes up.
Considering the team is made up of mostly freshmean and sophomores, including sophomore Catalina Langlitz, who barely missed qualifying for state this year by one place, coach Corey Baird sees a bright future for the Salado program.
“The girls have already made a goal to make it to regionals next year as a team,” she said.
As for this year, freshman Jaci McGregor will be the only member racing in the Class 4A state meet Saturday.
She’s come a long way from her first meet at the Temple Invitational in August where she placed second, just 3.1 seconds behind the winner. At regionals, she placed second again, coming in 4.8 seconds behind after leading “until the last 800 meters,” Baird said.
Every other race this season McGregor has won roughly 15 to 20 seconds ahead of her competition, including running her personal-best time of 12:13.8 in early October at the Lampasas Battlin’ Badger Invitational.
“I’m very excited because I’m a freshman and it shocked me,” McGregor said. “I came into the season thinking, ‘Oh, high school, it’s going to be much harder, there’s going to be so much more competition.’
“I got here and did surprisingly well and I was just very excited.”
She may be just a freshman but “she has the maturity of an upperclassman,” Baird said.
“She always takes the lead — stretches, drills, keeping other in line,” she said. “She’s a natural leader on the team.”
Running for the team
Upon first meeting the petite McGregor, she is quiet, but the moment you ask her about cross country the passion and drive she has for the sport shines through.
Ask her which level she prefers racing at more and her answer brings out the competitor in her.
“I like high school,” she said. “In junior high, you stop at district and you’re done.
“In high school you can advance to regionals and state, and I like that.”
And while running in cross country may be about the individual time, it’s still a team sport. That might explain why McGregor’s initial response to the most important thing she’s taken from her first high school season had to do with her team.
“I learned that you have to be a team player,” she said. “And it’s so much fun whenever you are with your team.”
Training for this moment
Typically before a race, McGregor and Baird, along with the team, walk the track the day before a race.
“They can see where the change in terrain is,” Baird said. “You know, where the hills are, so this helps prepare with their pacing.
“If there’s any turns, they’ll accelerate through the turn to get ahead of their … competitors.”
McGregor’s event, is the last race on Saturday afternoon, which may change the way she’ll run since considering she is acclimated to cool mornings at practice.
“You have to push a lot harder in the heat because it takes away your energy,” McGregor said. “You have to work a lot harder whenever it’s hotter outside.”
McGregor may not be at much of a disadvantage considering the training she did over the summer with her brother, former Salado cross country runner Eric McGregor.
Eric ran with the Salado team in the state meet in 2011 and 2012. In his senior year he placed in the top 20 and the boys team took second at state.
“During the summer I did my training with him,” Jaci said.
While she ran with her brother in the summer heat, he motivated her to keep on pushing with “a few more laps” as well as reminding her to keep hydrated.
“He’s a good motivator,” Baird said. “He comes to a lot of her meets.”
Cross-country seems to be a family sport.
“The genes kind of run in my family,” Jaci said. “I realized I was pretty good at the sport and it just motivated me to do the sport.”
She started in seventh grade and “kind of came out of nowhere because I didn’t really expect to do well.” By eighth grade, she started to really practice and put in the work.
“I just progressively got better and I just love to run now,” she said. “It gets my mind off of the stress of life and it just helps me.”
The final race of the season
Although cross country runs in her blood, the thought of competition still gets to McGregor.
“I have all the nerves because I think family members are coming from a lot of places,” she said. “But that’s really good whenever you’re racing because that’s all the adrenaline building up inside you.”
However nervous McGregor will be, she’ll stick to her usual pre-race preparations of eating pasta the night before, relaxing in a warm bath after her ice bath at practice and put on some face masks.
Even Baird knows how much McGregor loves her face masks, “She did three before district.”
“The day of,” McGregor added.
That morning, though, you won’t find her listening to music before her race.
“I pray,” she said. “That’s what I do, I pray before my meets.”
Although the ultimate goal is to win the state title, McGregor has her own personal goals.
“I really want to break a 12-minute 2-mile and I want to place in the top 10,” she said. “But if that doesn’t happen, as long as I tried my hardest and I ran my race the best I can run my race, then I’ll be happy.”
The school record for the 2-mile is 11:59 and McGregor’s personal-best time is 12:13.8.
“It’s within reach,” Baird said. “Very attainable and she’s been practicing hard."
McGregor will run in the Class 4A state meet Saturday at 2:40 p.m.at Old Settlers Park in Round Rock. The Lampasas girls team is also running in the race, along with Gatesville sophomore Katrina Thoms. And Lampasas senior Nathan Herrin will run in the 4A boys race at 3:10.
“I’m going to give it my all,” McGregor said. “It’s my last meet and it’s the state meet so I’m going to give everything I have and put it into the meet.”
CLASS 4A CROSS COUNTRY MEET
Girls race, 2:40 p.m. at Old Settlers Park, Round Rock
Local entrants: Salado's Jaci McGregor, Gatesville's Katrina Thoms, Lampasas' girls team
Boys race, 3:10 p.m.
Local entrant: Lampasas' Nathan Herrin