In defeat, Ansley Bailey derived inspiration.
Watching Benton’s Mia McLain dominate the girls cross county scene the last four years gave Bailey a cause to enjoy a dominant senior season.
“I learned to never give up,” Bailey said. “She has so much heart for running and she never gives up. If you keep working like she does, it will pay off for you.”
Bailey’s trip to the pay window came this fall in the form of a nearly perfect record, plus regional and sectional titles. That makes her an easy choice to succeed McLain as The Southern Illinoisan Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.
Bailey becomes just the second girl from Massac County to earn the award. Lindsay Zeiler was a four-time winner from 1998-2001, paving the path that McLain followed the last four years.
It wasn’t that Bailey came out of nowhere. She won a regional title as a freshman and placed 14th at last year’s Class 1A meet in Peoria. In July, she verbally committed to SIU and officially signed last week.
But McLain left virtually nothing except scraps for most competitors. Bailey wanted to sit at the big girl table this year. Aping McLain’s work ethic and setting the pace was her formula to do so.
“She was doing workouts before school would start, and then when school would let out here at 12:45, she’d do a workout before practice,” said Patriots coach Cory Hastings. “And then at 3:15, she’d be right there practicing with us.
“You don’t even have to worry about her, just the other runners. I hope I’m wrong about this, but she’s probably once in a coaching career.”
Except for a September race where she competed with an injury and lost, Bailey set the pace and dared others to play catch-up. Her primary battle was with the stopwatch instead of other runners.
After all, it’s hard to worry about what’s behind you when no one is in sight.
“I had to give it my all and go out with good times and win,” Bailey said. “I wanted to be undefeated, and although I lost one race, I was able to show how hard I worked. This season has honestly been one of the best.”
It was capped in fitting fashion during a postseason that saw Bailey put her stamp on it before it even started. On the Sunday before the Marissa Regional, Bailey and her father made a two-hour drive north from Metropolis to walk the course around the Marissa Recreational Area.
Race day dawned cold, windy and damp. Wind chills were probably in the mid-30s when the athletes heard the starter’s pistol just before 9 a.m. Bailey was wide awake, posting a time of 18:25.6 that was just over 50 seconds ahead of another good runner, Du Quoin’s Olivia Phillips.
On Halloween morning, Bailey trekked to Belleville for the sectionals. Just before the race started, Bailey reminded herself to go fast. Her competitors heard her, but it was the equivalent of Magic Johnson famously telling opponents that if he ran the plays correctly, it didn’t matter who knew.
Bailey went fast and no one could keep up. The winning margin at the end was 41 seconds, Bailey firing a fist in the air just before the finish line as Hastings videoed the stretch run for social media posterity.
“It was so great to see,” Hastings said. “It was such a fitting way to end the season, the best way it could end.”
Bailey hopes to run her senior season in track and field before she starts her SIU career next fall. She is actually looking forward to chasing others for a change, figuring the Salukis will have other runners who offer more experience and speed.
But the girl who learned from other successful runners will no doubt learn from new teammates. The competitor in Bailey craves her new challenge.
“They are probably going to be better than me and it makes me excited,” she said. “I’ll be a little mad, but I’ll grit it out and I’ll be better than I am now. I’ll want to beat them every time I run.”
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