Whether the Baylor girls' track team can claim a fourth consecutive Division II state championship may be decided not by a sprint to the finish, but how fast four seniors can cover ground in the three distance races.
The experience and talent of Hannah Jumper, Tenley Godfrey and twins Rachel and Rebecca Greenwall will be huge factors in where the Lady Red Raiders finish at the Spring Fling in two weeks.
Baylor or GPS athletes have the area's top girls' times or distances in 13 of the 18 statistical events, and those two teams are expected to battle for statewide D-II supremacy. While the Bruisers are likely to score more points in sprint and field events, Baylor has a clear advantage in the distance races, predominantly because of its fleet-footed foursome's ability to stockpile points.
"I've never had a group like them, and I could stay here and coach for another hundred years and not have four as good as this group," Baylor coach Bill McMahan said. "Any of them can run well enough to win any event they enter and we know they'll all score well for us, so it's just a matter of settling them into the events that will help us most as a team.
"GPS is so good, especially in the hurdles, jumps and field events, we're going to need a way to offset all the points they'll get there, and these four girls will be a big part of that plan. All four of them are very versatile, which is another huge help."
Division II athletes begin qualifying for the state meet Tuesday with the region 3200 and field events at Baylor, and Thursday the sprint events and 1600 will be held at Baylor.
Jumper, who has run with the varsity since her eighth-grade year, already is one of the most decorated distance runners in recent state history with eight combined individual state titles in track and cross country. She was a major factor in Baylor's last three team championships. The Vanderbilt signee currently has the area's fastest times in both the 1600 and 3200 and is second to teammate Rachel Greenwall in the 800.
"It's really second nature to be working toward the state as a team and not thinking a whole lot about individual points," Jumper said. "If you go out and try to score as many points as you can to help your team, naturally higher finishes come with that. But the team is what we're out here working for and focusing on."
Godfrey, who has signed to run at Florida next year, trails only Jumper's time in the 3200 and is third-fastest in the area in the 1600. She finished second to Jumper in the cross country state meet last fall.
The Greenwall sisters, who have signed with Georgia Southern, gave the Lady Raiders even more quality depth when they transferred from North Oconee (Ga.) last summer, immediately teaming with Jumper and Godfrey to help the cross country team win its second straight state title. Rachel now runs the 1600 and 3200, while Rebecca runs the 400, has the area's fastest time in the 800 and is part of the 4x800 and 4x400 relay teams.
The Lady Red Raiders' 4x800 team has the area's fastest time by 24 seconds, and the 4x400 team has the fastest time in the area by nearly eight full seconds.
"We're all really close but very competitive with each other," Godfrey said. "If I didn't fight to try and top Hannah or one of my teammates, I would be trying to be my best. Our practices are tougher than a lot of the meets we compete in."
That friendly competition at practice has translated into times that have improved noticeably for each as the season has worn on.
"There's definitely competition between them," McMahan said. "Sometimes they're so intense on beating each other at practice, they forget we're working on pace or something else. They push each other, but they keep it to a point that it doesn't affect their friendship.
"I told them at the beginning of the year that we wouldn't put up with jealousy. I'm not going to coach anybody who isn't team-oriented, no matter how good they are. But these four are the first ones to practice and the last ones to leave, and when they aren't running, they're around the track cheering our other athletes. It's obvious they're all fine runners, but they're also great students, wonderful kids and the kind of people you want to go out and represent your school."