There are many superlatives to describe St. Thomas Aquinas cross-country coach Trish Butler: driven, colorful, dedicated, among others. But there is one dubious label her team hopes to remove Saturday: “One of the best coaches never to win a state title.”
The Class 4A top-ranked Raiders girls’ team will be on a mission to deliver the eighth-year coach an elusive title at the FHSAA State Finals at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee.
“It would be an amazing honor to win it for Coach Butler,” Raiders No. 2 runner Christina Kalis said. “She is very devoted to the team. She is one of us. She is always there to push you and encourage you. To help her win a state title would be a thank you, to tell her how much she has done and all the work she has put into the team.”
Butler boasts two third-place finishes in her previous seven trips to state, with a four-point loss to 10-time state champion Tampa Plant for the 2011 state title the most painful.
What should ultimately allow these Raiders to shed their bridesmaid label is a swagger and mental toughness that coincided with Alexa Cruz’s highly anticipated arrival.
Cruz (18:09, No. 10 in Florida) has lived up to all the hype that surrounded her. She enters the State Finals with the No. 10 time in Florida (18:09) and is considered a threat to end the two-year state reign of Dr. Phillips senior Bridget Blake (17:47, No. 2 in Florida).
Hagerty’s Bryce Seymour, a Florida commit, Blake’s teammate Amber Johnson and Olympia’s Emily Headley and Kaitlyn Campo are also expected to be in the hunt.
Aquinas has been on a tear all season and looked every bit the FACA/flrunners.com No. 2 overall team in Florida by posting a perfect 21 points to run away with the Region 3-4A title.
Behind Cruz, Kalis, Meg Schloss, Marina Braynon-Moore and Brianna Rischar, the Raiders went 1-2-5-6-7 with an impressive 18:39 team average.
“This year’s team is super focused,” Schloss said. “We have this great communication when we’re running together as a pack. It is exciting and very encouraging to know we’re No. 1. It motivates us to do even better at states.”
The biggest challenge to Aquinas lies with two-time defending state champion Tampa Plant, which will be looking for revenge after being defeated by Aquinas in their lone head-to-head matchup at the Pre-state Invitational in October.
Finishing a mere three points behind Florida’s No. 1-ranked Estero for a close second-place finish and 81 ahead of Tampa Plant gave Aquinas the confidence boost that this is the year Aquinas and Butler get over the hump.
“We will have to keep the gap between our No. 1 and No. 5 five runners as close as possible and run our race,” Cruz said. “We have been working to hard to get to this point. A state title would mean so much to Coach Butler after all she has done for us. Last year she lost it by so little. It would mean the world to her.”