The Columbia Academy Lady Cougars claimed the first-place trophy Nov. 13 in the first annual Mississippi All-State Challenge of Champions.
In a first for Mississippi, this meet gave public and private school state champions from all divisions a chance to compete against each other to see who’s the “best of the best” in Mississippi. There was also a qualifying time standard for teams and individuals that ran fast but didn’t win their championship.
The Lady Cougars were a huge underdog with their top runner, Charlee Brees Franks, out sick. However, they were not intimidated and were determined to make the best of their time in the spotlight. They dedicated their effort to Franks and went on to run the best race of their lives and in CA history.
Their first runner, eighth-grader Briley Speights, came across the finish line in 14th place in a CA record time of 20:32. Senior and team captain Natalie Ragan crossed in 18th with a career personal record time of 20:50. She was closely followed by Madelyn McKenzie in 20th with 20:55, also a personal record. Blair Pounds then finished 24th with a personal record time of 21:12.
It was up to the all-important fifth runner to determine Columbia Academy’s fate. Macy Robertson filled that bill in 35th place, only two seconds shy of her personal record time with a 21:44. Zoey Daley, CA’s sixth runner, finished in 68th with a personal record of 23:41. Her finish would have been used to break a tie if needed.
The finishers’ names and times scrolled across the scoreboard as coaches tried to tabulate the scores. Everyone knew it was going to be close. Anticipation grew as the huge crowd waited for the official results and for a champion to be named.
CA cross country coach Duane Powell was confident that his Girls had made the top-5. As they read the results from the bottom up, excitement grew among the CA group.
The fifth-place team was called out as Lewisburg High School, then No. 4, previously undefeated French Camp High School. Third place went to East Rankin Academy.
Was it possible that the Lady Cougars pulled off the biggest upset of the season?
All was answered with the announcement of runner-up, Simpson Academy. Screams came from the CA camp as they knew the Lady Cougars had won.
Then the official announcement was made, Columbia Academy was the 2021 Mississippi All-State Champions. The Lady Cougars charged to the stand to collect the championship trophy.
“This was an amazing accomplishment,” Powell said. “I’m still in shock. I knew we were strong, but for these young ladies to pull this off without Franks was unbelievable. Actually, we were without our No. 5 runner from last year as well. Madison Bond was also out with a hip injury. We were blessed to have such depth. Speights stepped up big time to lead us, and Ragan finished off her seven-year cross country career in style. It was the determination and toughness of these kids that was the difference. With a total of seven wins, it’s been an awesome season and what a way to finish it off. I’m so proud of them.”
The official results showed CA won by 8 points over MAIS 5A powerhouse Simpson Academy. CA’s top-5 runners had an average time of 21:03. It turned out that the tight finish of their top-4 put them in the lead, and Macy Robertson’s 35th place sealed the victory. She had the fastest time of all the other teams’ fifth-place runners.
Briley Speights was named second team All-State, with Natalie Ragan and Madelyn McKenzie receiving All-State honorable mention medals.
The meet was hosted and sponsored by Mississippi College. It was held at Choctaw Trails in Clinton, which is recognized as one of the premiere cross country courses in the South.