Palestine wins first girls district title

CANTON — The East Palestine Bulldogs are paying back senior Alexis Cunningham for all she has done for the cross country program.

“The Figley twins made a pact that they were going to leave it out there for Alexis this year to make it a year to remember,” said East Palestine coach Andy Cunningham, who is Alexis’ father.

The East Palestine girls are doing that as their season continued with their first district championship at GlenOak High School on Saturday.

“We demolished our team time today,” Alexis Cunningham said. “We’ve been working especially hard. It definitely showed.”

The Bulldogs had four of the top 11 runners to win the Division III district team title with 63 points. Sullivan Black River was second with 74, Canton Central Catholic third with 95 and East Canton fourth with 103.

The top four teams and top 16 individuals advance to the regional meet at Boardman High School next Saturday.

“We’ve been practicing all week to try to do this,” freshman Hope Figley said. “We were confident on winning.”

“It’s something we believed we could do, but we weren’t sure about Black River,” Andy Cunningham said. “We ran against them once this year at the Spartan and they beat us soundly. It was our worst race. This was our best race.”

Alexis Cunningham was second out of 83 runners, covering the 3.1-mile course in 19 minutes, 45.7 seconds.

The next four Bulldogs all had personal bests.

Freshman Hope Figley was sixth, sophomore Emily Zimmerman ninth, freshman Faith Figley 11th and freshman Heather Bishop 36th.

“Of the top five girls, four had their best races,” Andy Cunningham said. “We’ve been doing a lot of tempo runs where we have go go faster on the second mile. That helped us today.”

Zimmerman was the biggest surprise and was a big reason for the Bulldogs’ district championship run.

“Emily had a personal-best 22:27 just last week and then turned around and cut off another 1:15,” Andy Cunningham said.

“I told her she she had to get in the top 16 and not repeat last year (when she got boxed in),” Alexis Cunningham said.

Hope Figley said the Bulldogs’ success is a testament to the leadership shown by the two seniors, Alexis Cunningham and Elizabeth Lipp.

“When I first started, I didn’t think it was possible to get down to the 21s because I was getting tired,” Hope Figley said. “I kept working through it.”

“They feel all the work is paying off,” Alexis Cunningham said. “I’ve been motivating these girls since middle school. I told them how great they are and they were laughing at me, literally. They said they couldn’t believe how strong they are.”

Alexis Cunningham is seeking a return trip to the state meet and is hoping the Bulldogs join her this year.

“Alexis has pushed us to where we are today,” Hope Figley said. “We wanted to make her senior season memorable. We’re going to give whatever we have left. We want to try to make it better for her.”

“There’s a lot of motivation for them to want her to succeed,” Andy Cunningham said. “In the seventh grade, Hope and Faith weren’t sure they wanted to run cross country. Alexis took them under her wing and showed them what we believed it. It wasn’t about places, it was about doing your best. If you can do your best each time out, you can be great.”

The Bulldogs will need a repeat performance next weekend to have a shot at one of the four state berths.

The regional field includes second-ranked McDonald (the Blue Devils had four runners at 19:31 and under Saturday), fifth-ranked Gilmour Academy and 13th-ranked Maplewood.

“We’ve been looking at it, but haven’t talked to the girls,” Andy Cunningham said. “We’re in the top five or six, but there is a chance we can pull it off.”

Meet notes

¯ Not attending the meet was Southern Local freshman standout Hannah Logston, whose father died overnight.

“I was wondering where she was,” Alexis Cunningham said. “That’s rough. I know how hard it was on my dad when he lost his dad.”

Keep Hannah in your prayers.

¯ Temperatures were in the 70s for most of Saturday’s races. It was quite a change from last year’s district meet when it was 46 degrees.

¯ The GlenOak High School course has been good to local runners.

When the 2008 regional meet was moved to GlenOak because of the condition of Boardman’s course, the Columbiana girls earned their only state berth.

Those Clippers are the last Columbiana County team to reach the state cross country meet.