Cypress Bay first-team All-American cross-country runner Katherine MacNeal will carry the torch for her breast cancer-surviving mother, Jill MacNeal, at the FHSAA Class 4A state finals in Tallahassee on Saturday.
Katherine said the poise and courage her mother exhibited while fighting the disease and ultimately emerging cancer-free after being diagnosed three years ago will be her driving force at the Apalachee Regional Park Course.
“To see what my mother went through has inspired me,” Katherine said. “I will be running my last state meet for her. It is my last time, and I will be thinking of her the whole time. When I hit that wall and start hurting, I will think about her and know I can always run faster.”
Since immersing herself in cross-country as an escape during her mother’s ordeal, Katherine MacNeal has earned All-American distinction the past two seasons.
Katherine said her mental toughness, the calling card of an illustrious career, was forged watching how her mother dealt with a breast cancer diagnosis.
While the news left the MacNeal family shocked and numb, Jill MacNeal became a lesson on how to remain steadfast while dealing with adversity.
Instead of asking “Why me?” Jill MacNeal deflected attention from her plight by keeping the MacNeal household and the day-to-day routines as close to normal as possible.
Even after undergoing a procedure, Jill MacNeal refused to miss a single day of work as she endured the physical and mental toll of radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
“The situation with my mom taught me how you deal with your problems in life tells the kind of person you are,” Katherine said. “The whole thing proved that no matter what my mom will never give up. You just have to keep fighting because things will always get better.”
While St. Thomas Aquinas’ Alexa Cruz, Tampa Plant’s Bailey Sullivan and Fletcher’s Kayley DeLay are ranked 1-2-3, respectively, in the FACA pre-state poll, the added incentive to honor her mother could spark Katherine to a top-three finish.
Although Katherine is ranked 11th and hasn’t matched her personal-best 18:38 from last season, there are several factors that could keep her in contention.
Katherine ran a season-best 18:40 earlier this season on the Apalachee course; she owns a formidable late kick and a history of coming up big at the marquee races.
“Kat has a shot at winning the title,” Lightning coach Joe Monks said. “Coming from what her mom went through, Kat has gotten the strength to be a great competitor and put on a great fight. Kat has to go out with that main group at the gun. If she hangs with them, she will be in position.”
Katherine’s renowned competitive streak was on display at the BCAA championships on Oct. 18 when she out-sprinted Aquinas’ Brianna Rischar with 30 meters left for a thrilling second-place finish.
Jill MacNeal didn’t miss a meet when undergoing cancer treatment and admits emotion will be at an all-time high when she, her husband, Bruce MacNeal, and son Robert MacNeal witness Katherine’s final high school meet.
“It’s going to be so exciting to watch Kat run her final state finals,” Jill MacNeal said. “I am so proud of her. I think with Kat, any time you see a parent that has an illness it’s a very, very, scary thing. We were positive, we had our faith and family and once we knew what our situation was and knew our diagnosis we put our plan together and went for it.”