The call to arms was delivered over a spaghetti dinner.
Mount Pleasant Track Club coach Tami Dennis keeps tabs on rival teams from around the country. She likes to know her opponents. So in the days leading up to the biggest race of the season, Dennis sought out a competitor, an all-star conglomeration from California seeded first nationally in its respective age division.
Dennis’ enthusiasm wasn’t reciprocated. The Californians weren’t familiar with Mount Pleasant. “Who?” they asked with a skeptic, half-hearted response. “From where?”
Motivation can be derived a lot of ways but oftentimes the best develops organically. Dennis had found new fuel.
“They aren’t even interested in knowing who you are,” she proclaimed to her young runners as they carb-loaded with heaps of pasta. “Make sure, by the time we leave here, they can’t forget you.”
Mount Pleasant Track Club placed first in the country in two different age divisions at the USA Track and Field Junior Olympics cross country national championships last weekend in Madison, Wisconsin.
It was the best showing ever for the accomplished local running team, which in addition to winning its first two national championships, placed second and fourth in two other age divisions, with six runners earning individual All-American distinction.
“It’s unbelievable,” Dennis said. “We really did some ground-breaking things this year. I mean, they’re competing against the best kids in the country. Little old Mount Pleasant. National champions. Imagine.”
Temperatures hovered in the upper-20s the morning of the race. “This is actually OK,” Dennis assured her runners as the start time approached. The team had been training for worse.
It dropped to 11 degrees before the day was through. The wind picked up and had a way of slicing through whatever protection you wore. The race traced a golf course, which was frozen and uneven with rolling hills.
“I’ve never been so cold in my life,” Dennis said, recanting her original assessment.
Still, the kids from the southern beach community were undeterred.
Mount Pleasant won the 8-and-under boys division with three All-American performances. Miles Tonelis finished fourth, Dylan Johnson sixth and Ryder Kotz 12th overall. Vinny Cote in 48th and Evan Whichard in 61st rounded out Mount Pleasant’s top five runners in a 29-point victory over the next closest team. That certain top-seeded team from California followed behind in fourth place.
Mount Pleasant’s 8-and-under boys team placed second at nationals the past two years. Many of those boys had by now matriculated to the 9-10 year-old team. This year would be different. Gabe Hislop placed fourth, Drew Butler 28th, Anthony Cote 39th, Brett Schleier 50th and Zachary Teachman crossed 76th to lead Mount Pleasant to the 9-10 national title.
Dennis tracked all of the races from inside the course. She counted her runners’ positioning about 400 meters in and again with 400 meters to go. “Split them or get them,” was Mount Pleasant’s team motto this season, meaning either split apart the runners from other teams racing together or race past them. And run as close as you can to the red (MPTC) jersey in front of you, Mount Pleasant coaches always urge.
“It’s nerve wracking,” Dennis admitted. She was grinning toward the end of the first couple races, pretty confident that her youngest runners had performed well. She broke down in tears when the official results were posted.
Mount Pleasant had claimed two national championships and it wasn’t yet noon.
“The conditions were really tough,” she said. “You never know how they’re going to respond to that. They responded like champions.”
Hislop has now garnered All-American honors eight times in all, already pulling him even for the program record with Cane Bay senior Zane Jackson, who won the S.C. High School League Class AAAAA cross country state championship this fall. Jackson text messaged Dennis throughout the weekend to check on Hislop and the team.
“Gabe was a great leader all year long. He’s really learned from people like Zane who came before him,” Dennis said. “But I challenged Gabe this year to carry the team to No. 1. And at the end of the season, there they were atop the podium.”
Dennis walked the course a couple days before the races to get a feel for the terrain. She by chance met a parent and coach from Ohio who was familiar with Hislop, remembering him from past years. The same thing happened the following day with another random stranger, this time asking about Hislop’s sister Savannah.
“Word spreads, I guess,” Dennis said.
The younger Hislop placed eighth overall in the 8-and-under girls division, leading Mount Pleasant — with the help of Lucy Baxter (28th), Siena D’Agostino (44th), Olivia Lee (83rd) and Ada Klick (87th) — to second place at the national meet.
Nick Fiorillo finished 12th in the 17-18 boys division to claim Mount Pleasant’s sixth individual All-American distinction. The top three teams and top 25 runners from each age division receive All-American honors.
Dennis cried by the end of it all, then danced with her athletes, then cried some more.
“It was a magical season,” she said. “We’re not just building great individuals, we’re building great teams. That’s the thing I love most, it’s so team driven. It’s wonderful.”
Dennis cried again days later, now back home alone swimming laps in a pool. It was her first moments to really reminisce. She thought of her young team and how out of place they were in the frigid cold of Wisconsin. She thought about the odds that a homegrown group from a town that small with no all-star feeder system could rise atop the country's best. She thought about the kids and what it sounded like to hear their names announced as All-Americans and, for the first time ever, national champions.
“I guess they know who we are now.”