Before Central High School senior Damion Mujica began running at Jesse James Park in Kearney Saturday morning, he and his teammates had a plan. Three of them would jump to the front of the pack and set the pace of the Class 5 District 8 cross country race.
Everything was going according to plan for the 1.5 miles of the race, Mujica said, but things started to go off the rails. Mujica started falling back of the pace. He said he started to lose hope of a top finish. But when Mujica needed them the most, his teammates helped him pull through.
“It really helped me get motivated,” Mujica said. “That motivation really helped me to push and was really able to help me get to the finish line.”
Mujica finished second in the race, just a second behind the winner. His performance helped deliver a district title for the Central boys cross country team, its first since 2017.
“The district we are in is the hardest district in the entire state of Missouri,” Mujica said. “Being able to win and beat two other really, really good teams really gives us a lot of confidence going into state.”
Mujica’s path to the podium in Saturday’s race wasn’t the only ebb or flow the team saw according to Central coach Bob Miller. One of the team’s top five runners pulled a muscle just a quarter mile into the race, forcing others to have to step up.
“We’ve had to overcome all kinds of stuff this season,” Miller said, “so anytime you can step up and kind of fill that gap when somebody goes down and still come out on top just shows the strength and the depth of our program right now.”
The strength of the Central cross country program shows on both the boys and the girls side. The school boasts top finishers in both district meets over the weekend.
“I usually just blank out and just daydream,” Central freshman Jolie Galloway, who finished third in the girls district meet, said. “I kind of started back, and I just think ‘keep moving up,’ and I moved my way up.”
The strength of the team shows in the bond the runners have with each other. The team depends on each other to push them to be better.
“We’re really encouraging to each other, and we’re really close” Galloway said. “We hang out all the time, and we’ve just been really close.”
Because of the team’s mixture of experience and ability to make each other better, Miller said the team is right where it was expected to be at this point of the season.
“We have a really talented and deep senior class,” Miller said. “Several of them have been on varsity since their freshman year, so I think it’s just a testament to the hard work they’ve put in for years now.”
With the high expectations of the program, hopes were still dashed with the looming threat of the pandemic putting the season on hold, but Mujica said the team did its best to keep spirits high.
“Being able to even compete with everything going on is just a blessing,” Mujica said. “Having to worry about that and trying to compete in races, it was a struggle at first, but a lot of it was trying to be lighthearted and keep the mood up.”
Through the highs and the lows of the season, Miller said he’s expecting Mujica and others to be in the mix once the state meet gets going at Gans Park in Columbia this weekend.
“When you’ve got an experienced, older team, there’s not as much worry about not being able to handle a moment,” Miller said. “They’re pretty relentless in their drive to get, if not a state title, then a state trophy for sure.”