The Dalton State women’s cross country team, featuring Heritage High alum Alex Gass (fourth from right), won their season-opening event at Middle Georgia College in Macon on Saturday.

The Dalton State Lady Roadrunners cross country team took off from the starting line like their running shorts were on fire and never looked back to defend their title in the Middle Georgia Invitational in Macon this past Saturday. In a meet that included two conference foes (host Middle Georgia and Brewton-Parker), they took five of the top eight places to form a huge gap between them and the second-place team in the meet.

The team, and indeed the entire field, was led by outstanding freshman Riley Jo Ford from Marlette High School in the small town of Caro, Michigan. Running in her first-ever collegiate meet, she took the lead in the first 10 meters and no one was ever close. For Ford, it was her first-ever team victory, making the individual win part of a great package to go along with her first collegiate medal.

Junior Alex Gass followed her breakout sophomore season with another solid effort and the best time she has ever run on the terribly difficult course. The Heritage High School alum came home in fourth place overall.

“Alex had another solid day, running fairly close to Riley for a while,” DSC coach Dean Thompson said. “She is not at her strongest right now, but that didn’t stop her from running hard and turning in an outstanding performance. There is no ‘give up’ in Alex. She always runs hard, even when it’s not easy to do.”

Behind Alex in fifth place was sophomore Kate Roberts, who had one of her best efforts in finishing third on the team. She had never finished higher than sixth on the team in prior contests.

Just behind Kate was senior Kay Vradenburgh. After finishing fourth in this race for the last two years in a row, Kay settled for a sixth-place finish overall this year, making her the only Roadrunner on the team to finish all three years in the top ten.

Rounding out the scoring and the awards ceremony for the Roadrunners was freshman Kayla Mattox, another Ringgold resident who ran for the Chattanooga Patriots in high school. She finished eighth overall, leaving the ladies with two freshmen in the scoring for the winning team.

“Kayla had a really good day,” Thompson remarked. “She sometimes struggles on the mental side, but today, I felt like she had a little breakthrough. She gathered herself when it got really tough and fought really hard. That was the entire goal of the day. She gets an A-plus, just like she normally does in the classroom.”

Finishing just outside the scoring and the awards in 11th place was sophomore Rebecca Poe. Poe ran a valiant race, but was just edged out for the fifth spot on the team.

The competing ladies stepped up and ran a great race despite the fact that last year’s Freshman of the Year, Kathryn Vradenburgh, and University of North Georgia transfer, Haley Tillery, were held out of the meet for minor injuries. Junior Rachel Ward, a consistent top five scorer for the last two years, started Saturday’s race, but was unable to finish.

“I was really proud of the way we competed,” Thompson added. “In a race that was clearly ours from the gun, the ladies did not let up at all throughout the race. Some of them have struggled mentally just recently, but our goal today was for everyone to compete hard. Mission accomplished. We talked last night about how ‘okay’ is not good enough. We want to the best we can be every time we toe the line. They did that today, and today’s course was brutal.

“It was hot (and) they had to run over constantly rolling hills and through sand on a course that is a little longer than the standard 5K. I couldn’t be more proud of the grit I saw out there today.”

Next up for Dalton State will be a Friday, Sept. 18 race at their home course at the Grove Level Running Trail in Dalton. The ladies’ gun goes off at 6:30 p.m.

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