Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
BAINBRIDGE — Before last week’s Division III Southeast District Track Meet, Paint Valley’s 4×400-meter relay team had never ran together at the same time.
The quartet — made up of freshman Abbi Stanforth, sophomore Hannah Bevan and seniors Grace McAllister and Colleen Mills — had always been in different place at different times.
Stanforth played softball for the Bearcats, limiting her availability, while Bevan was dealing with an injury. McAllister and Mills ran the relay all year but with alternating teammates.
So, without practice and without experience running with one another, the group made it out of the district preliminaries and then qualified for regionals — a feat not even they expected to accomplish.
“We haven’t been able to practice a lot together all year long,” Bevan said. “With Abbi in softball and with me being injured … at the district meet, we just kind of showed up. This was the group. We haven’t had a relay team qualify for regionals in four years. I think people see our boys team and they’re really good but nobody really pays attention to us. So we just kind of showed up and shocked everyone, including ourselves.”
Just before the race began, not knowing what would eventually take place, the group had a conversation about how it could be Mills and McAllister’s final time racing in black and gold.
But a pep talk from McAllister’s father may have helped steer the ship in a different direction.
“I think that was a bonding moment for us. Before we ran, coach [Paul] McAllister was telling us how we had to go out and not make it our last race,” Mills said. “We’re standing there, crying. It’s like 10 minutes before the race started. So, we’re like, ‘OK, wipe it up. Let’s go.’”
Running a 4:31.62, the relay placed fourth behind Coal Grove, Wheelersburg and Peebles. When they realized their season wasn’t over, you can imagine what happened next.
“We just all started hugging,” McAllister said. “We’re all crouched down watching the times come across. It was just crazy. We just starting freaking out.”
What makes Paint Valley’s regional qualification even more of a special feat is the fact that they don’t have anywhere to practice.
Back in March, the Board of Education voted to approve a turf and track installation project. The construction began a day after Paint Valley held its annual Andy Haines Invitational, taking away any place for the Bearcats’ track teams to practice accordingly.
“[Paint Valley track coach John] Peters told us we could either take it as a bad thing and end our season or we could take it as a positive and work with what we had,” Mills said.
The Bearcats chose the latter.
Instead of practicing on a track, the Bearcats have used the front side of the schoolyard, where they’ve added a makeshift grass track of their own.
“We spray-painted a circle in the front of the school and it’s 300 meters,” Mills said. “It’s weird to work with but it’s what we’ve had to do. It makes you appreciate being on a track more.”
Wednesday evening, they’ll once again be on asphalt while competing at the Division III Regional Preliminaries at Fairfield Union High School. The goal is to obviously advance but they’re also shooting for the school record of 4:21.70, set in 2012.
“We really want to beat the record before we’re done,” Mills said. “We’ve been working all four years for it and we want to get it done. We want the underclassmen to look up to our group and to to shoot for something special.”
While the record and a regional final qualification is in the back of their minds, above all else, the Bearcats are happy to be where they are in the first place. They’ll let the dominoes fall where they may while sporting ear-to-ear smiles.
After all, they didn’t expect to still be running in the first place.
“I think the most important part is just going out and having fun,” McAllister said. “We made it. We didn’t even expect to get past preliminaries. But we placed fourth and we’re here. We just need to go out there, run our best race, get the handoffs right and just have fun.”