Jags proud of program's turnaround

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Sophie Baconnet fell to the ground writhing in pain.

The Augusta State junior cross country runner slipped going up a hill, twisting her right ankle and falling to the ground midway through the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional meet earlier this month. The Lady Jags' bid for a top-two finish, and a spot in the nationals, looked bleak.

"Even though I was hurt, the pain wasn't that bad," she said. "All I could think about was nationals."

Thanks to a heroic recovery by Baconnet, along with strong efforts by all-region senior Jenafer Forward, Savannah Sutton, Kara Kreutzer and Celia Kresser, Augusta State finished second to Lees-McRae. The Lady Jaguars earned their first trip to the NCAA Division II Championship on Saturday in Slippery Rock, Pa.

"It's a huge relief," fifth-year coach Adam Ward said. "It's enjoyable to see the program from where we've been to where we are now."

Forward remembers the state of the program when she arrived in 2005. That year, Augusta State sent just four runners to the regional -- one shy of qualifying for team competition.

"From where we started out," Forward said, "it is completely different."

Augusta State has gradually improved over the past three seasons. Ward won his third consecutive Peach Belt Coach of the Year award in October after his team posted three wins and three runner-up finishes in seven events. Augusta State also finished 10th out of 24 teams in the pre-national meet.

Forward, named first-team all-conference along with Baconnet, has had a breakout season with six top-10 finishes. She said her goal in her final meet is to earn All-American honors by finishing among the top 30 American runners. She also wants her team to set a standard for the program.

"We just want to go up there and make a statement for future years," Forward said.

Sutton, the Peach Belt Fresh-man of the Year and a second-team all-conference member along with Kreutzer, said her expectations changed throughout the season. One was to claim a first conference title for the school. But Sutton and her teammates fell short to Columbus State in the Peach Belt meet (a 5K event).

Two weeks later, Augusta State defeated Columbus State (fourth) in the 22-team regional (a 6K meet).

"It was horrible. We wanted first so bad," Sutton said of the team's Peach Belt showing. "(Columbus State) is fast, but we're tough."

Baconnet, who plans to run despite a sore ankle, is arguably the toughest on the roster after her gritty performance in the regional. After she picked herself up, Baconnet passed 20 runners in the final 1,000 meters, Ward said.

The day after the regional meet, Baconnet's purple ankle and toes swelled.

"We owe a lot to Sophie for that race," Sutton said.

Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or chris.gay@augustachronicle.com.

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