When Wootton’s Grace Dellapa finished the Maryland 4A West Regional Cross Country Championships, she was elated to have run a personal record 18:51 for sixth overall.
Dellapa knew she’d be representing Wootton once again at the state championships a week later. What she didn’t know was whether she’d be competing alone or with her team. All she could do was wait.
For eight straight years the Wootton girls’ cross country team had qualified for the state finals.
“That’s a long run and the girls knew it,” said head coach Kellie Redmond. “They didn’t want to be the first group that didn’t qualify as a team.”
Adversity was cruel to Wootton this year. Redmond acknowledged that it’s something that every school has to deal with but it seemed to hit her team particularly hard.
“We ran into a string of back luck,” she said. “One girl was anemic, another girl was out for a portion of the season with a possible stress fracture and another girl did have a stress fracture. It was just one thing after another.”
Though a team of inexperienced runners fought gamely, they found themselves on the outside looking in, missing the state meet by just five points.
Dellapa, then a junior, felt particularly sympathetic toward fellow teammate and senior Kylie Yassin, who was coming back from an injury and missed individual qualification by just a half second, finishing 24th overall.
What happened next is what made the disappointment of not qualifying as a team so special. Redmond held a team meeting with the girls and explained that while the team didn’t qualify for the state meet they could all continue to support their lone teammate who did. She emphasized that while it wasn’t mandatory, they would still be holding practice every day and that the entire team was welcome to continue to practice. She didn’t expect many to oblige.
“I thought that maybe they would offer to alternate days and maybe a handful would come to practice. Come Monday, all of them–and I mean the whole team–was there for practice,” Redmond said. “These are all young girls, many who had never experienced a state meet, yet they saw Grace get progressively better throughout the season and they knew what she had accomplished throughout the year. They just didn’t want the season to end.”
The team continued to come to practice each day to help Dellapa prepare for the state meet.
“One day we had a relay and they would stand at different stations along the course and I would run with someone and then they would hand me off to another teammate,” Dellapa said. “They wanted to come out and run with me. I was so proud of them.”
She never ran alone.
Heading to the state meet without a full team of girls was strange for Redmond. She reserved a bus for the one-way trip for Dellapa and the boys’ team, who had also qualified, knowing that parents would be there to take home the runners after the meet.
“We were required to have 11 kids on that bus — the boys’ team and Grace,” Redmond said. “Of course, the whole team came. The bus was full. It holds fifty kids. Needless to say, we were scrambling to get rides home for all of the kids after the meet.”
Looking back, Redmond is intensely proud of the way her girls team carried themselves those last few weeks.
“I’m so impressed,” she said. “For as young as they are, they all saw the importance of the state meet and the importance of being there to help their teammate. They all had the attitude, ‘OK, we didn’t make it as a team, but one of us did and this is what we do.’ So the fact that they participated in that and were there supporting her, I think that’s invaluable.”
Redmond explained that she knew race day was going to be emotionally hard for Dellapa. I think they all stood there wanting so badly to be on that starting line with her.
“Here she was standing alone at the start without any of her teammates,” she said. “She had been to the state meet with her team for the two years prior. It was kind of quiet on the line and way off into the distance you could hear a couple of the kids yell, ‘You got this, Grace! Go, Grace!’ It was that moment. I was standing right behind her and I said, “Do you hear that, Grace? They are right here with you. And she just shook her head, like, ‘I’m so fortunate.'”
“Being the only girl representing Wootton was kind of scary, but it was a good feeling. I wanted to represent Wootton well and get out there and do my best,” Dellapa said.
Dellapa didn’t disappoint. She crossed the line at the notoriously challenging Hereford High School course in 19:11, good for fifth place overall.
Asked about her goal for next year and whether she has a good chance to improve upon that fifth place finish, Dellapa said, “We’ll have to see. I can’t guarantee anything, but I’ll try my best.”
Redmond said this of Dellapa: “She just kind of works away and gets better every year. What sets her apart from any other girl I have ever coached is if you tell her to get fifth in the state, she will get fifth in the state! If you say to her mid-race, you need to catch three girls; she will catch the three girls. She is so coachable, it’s amazing! Everything you tell her, she does!”
Redmond says her only regret for the season is that she didn’t ask Dellapa to get first at states. The coach says she won’t make that mistake next season.