GAYLORD — BY DENNIS CHASE
The drama unfolded late in Tuesday's Big North Conference girls cross country championships at the Gaylord Golf and Country Club.
But it was not over who crossed the finish line first. It was over who finished fifth.
For the second time this season, Traverse City Central posted a perfect score in wrapping up another conference title. The Trojans finished with 15 points, just as they did in the league's first jamboree last month. Central actually had the top five in the second jamboree, too, but one of the runners, Molly Peregrine, was not one of the seven designated for varsity that day.
"We all wanted that perfect score," sophomore Ashley Ko said. "That was our goal."
Late in the race, West freshman Jessica Gockley was holding down the fifth spot, just ahead of Central's Katie Moses.
"I thought, 'I've got to make the dream happen,'" Moses said. "I gave it my all. I knew that's what I had to do."
Moses, an 800 runner in track, not only had the foot speed to pass Gockley as they hit the final straightaway, but she also moved into fourth ahead of teammate Jordan Mattarella.
Suddenly, Mattarella was the one battling for fifth, trying to hold off Gockley.
"It was kind of scary," she said. "I saw the West girls and they were cheering her on. She was right behind me. I'm like, 'Oh, no.' I kicked it in as hard as I could to the finish."
And just like that, perfection.
"That was one for the record books," Trojans coach Lisa Taylor said. "That was their main mission today."
Ko was the overall winner in 19:26.7, giving her a sweep of the three Big North races.
"I just wanted to do it for my team," she said. "They were pushing me the entire time. I couldn't have done it without them."
She led nearly the entire race.
"She's the most reliable runner I've had in years," Taylor said.
Another sophomore, Graceanne Tarsa, came in second in 19:39.
"I felt good," she said. "I went for it. I tried to leave everything out there."
"She's really stepped up," Taylor said of Tarsa. "She ended as our No. 7 runner last year, but then for the regional I put a junior ahead of her. She decided she was going to put herself in a safe position this year."
Peregrine, coming off a foot injury over the summer, took third in 19:54.3. She was the team's No. 1 runner last season when the Trojans finished seventh in Division 1.
"If I could write the book on how a runner should rehab and take care of an injury, and then comes back and follows the training schedule perfectly, she would be the subject of that book," Taylor said. "She's done everything right. It's nice to see her up there."
Moses was fourth (19:55.9) and Mattarella fifth (19:57.8) as Central completed the sweep.
"We all worked together and made sure we packed it up and got as close together as we could," Peregrine said. "We focused on working off each other's energy. It definitely worked well today."
Alpena finished second Tuesday — and second overall in the league. West was third Tuesday with 81 points. And that's where the Titans placed overall as well.
Gockley led the Titans by placing sixth (20:00.5). Quinn Hall finished 15th (21:15.1), Kayla Norris 17th (21:26), Emily O'Leary 19th (21:46.9) and Amanda Fouchey 24th (22:10.6).
"I was very impressed with what they did today," West coach Diane Goss said. "We've been battling some sickness and a little adversity, but I was impressed to see they could pull it together and run well."
Gockley, in particular. The freshman finished seventh in the first league jamboree and sixth in the final two.
"She's had a great season," Goss said. "She's feisty. We like that. We like to see her get in there and mix it up."
Gockley said she tried her best to hold off the Central runners for fifth, but was happy to take sixth.
"I stayed in the place I'm usually in," she said.
Central dominated the JV race, too, taking the top 12 spots. Kalina Pfannenstiel was the overall winner in 20:23.