TALLAHASSEE — Sprinting down the back stretch at Tallahassee's Apalachee Region Park on Saturday, Alex Eaton was behind the leader but far enough ahead of the remaining field to know that second place in the Class A girls state cross country race would belong to her.
The Shorecrest senior, who finished her final high school race in 18 minutes, 22.68 seconds, extended her arms as she crossed the finish and smiled.
It was a moment of unfiltered joy for a top-two finish she finally could embrace. The only runner Eaton could not catch was Melbourne Holy Trinity's Julie Wollrath, who won her third straight title in 18:14.88.
"It wasn't a personal record as far as time, but I'm ecstatic with what I did," said Eaton, who finished third at state a year ago. "This was the race I've always wanted to run."
Eaton had finally figured it out. It was there on her face, the jubilation and relief that came with knowing she had learned how to compete with the best the state cross country meet has to offer.
There were times in her career when it seemed the finish she wanted so badly was locked in a vault and no one would tell her the combination. She had battled through injuries and illness and fatigue from peaking too soon during a season. Last week, she was fourth at region and was not even the top-seeded runner from Pinellas County heading into the state meet, falling behind Calvary Christian's Hannah Brookover.
But Eaton put it all together Saturday by relying on strategy in a duel that resembled a chess match as much as a foot race.
Rather than letting the lead runners break out to a wide lead before reeling them in, Eaton sprinted to the front. She was able to do that because she waited until this week before she started tapering.
"This was my best race because it was a gutsy race," Eaton said. "At the state meet, you have to go out fast or else you'll never be able to catch up. By the end, my body was ahead of my mind. I was like, 'Whoa', and my mind eventually said it was okay."
Eaton was among four Chargers who finished in the top 40. The others were Olivia Rovin (28th), Sophia Vesely (35th) and Savannah Broome (40th). They helped Shorecrest finish fourth overall with 170 points.
Brookover, a sophomore who emerged as a state title contender this season, finished eighth in 18:44.42.
The Chargers boys had the better result as a team, placing third (127 points). Luke Peterson was ninth (16:29.89) and Ross Porter 11th (16:33.11) to lead a strong group of Shorecrest runners near the front.
Indian Rocks Christian's Trevor Quandt placed 18th (16:48.07) and Admiral Farragut's Patrick McNamara was 21st (16:58.63).
In 4A, Palm Harbor University's Sarah Raymond was 19th (19:23.82) and Countryside's Andrew Llewellyn was 23rd (16:23.42).