Minutes before toeing the starting line on Saturday, Dani Jones will take a moment, unfold a piece of paper and try to fill the void.
It may be a brief reprieve, knowing her father, Darcy, is back in Afghanistan, but the words on the piece of paper contain a shortened version of the Runner’s Prayer he gave her before one of his tours of duty with the National Guard.
The words, and their meaning, resonate so much it is as if he is among the crowd cheering her on when she is taking each stride along a 3.1-mile course.
“He gave it to me at state last year,” Jones said. “It means so much. I keep it in my flats and pull it out whenever I need to, especially right before a race.”
It gives a little insight as to why she has become Desert Vista’s top runner as a sophomore, even though she has some accomplished teammates and track events like the 800-meter run are more her specialty.
“Dani has really found herself,” Thunder coach Doug Christofiss said. “She came in as a freshman and performed well, but was still stronger at the shorter distances. Now, she has a feel on how to approach 3 miles and she has really taken off.”
The Thunder enter Saturday’s state cross country meet at Cave Creek Golf Course in Phoenix once again trying to catch five-time defending champion Xavier after finishing as runner-up three years running.
With Jones’ acceleration to the top runner along with the steadying presence of seniors Jenna Maack and Brittany Tretbar, both of whom have top 10 finishes in their career, give the Thunder possibly its best shot of catching the Gators although Tretbar is dealing with a sprained ankle and will have to push “through the pain,” she said.
Jones knows the drill.
“It’s keep your eye on those front girls and passing as much blue (Xavier jerseys) as I can,” said Jones, whose personal goal is to finish in the top three.
Jones, who had two top four finishes in the 800 (third) and 1,600 (fourth) in state track meet, said her father’s deployment has made home life off kilter like a kitchen table with one leg shorter than the rest.
It’s never stable.
“At home is when you feel it the most,” Jones said. “My mom (Tana) sleeps on his side of the bed. We (Dani and her sister Baylee) have her to lean on but she is on her own. It’s so hard. There is just this hole.”
It’s why when Darcy was home a few weeks ago and joined the family in California for the Mt. SAC race, Jones ran like never before, getting a personal record of 18 minutes and 5 seconds.
She didn’t have to rely on that piece of folded-up paper for reassurance.
He was there. In the crowd among the hilly terrain. Calling out her name. Giving her encouragement.
“It was so great,” she said. “Usually he isn’t there, but this time he was. I heard no one else but him. I wrote Capt. Jones on my wrist and I ran for him.”
The Thunder boys are considered Division I contenders despite losing their top runner Carter Macey to a leg injury simply because of the presence of freshman Xavier Esparza.
Desert Vista coach Chris Hanson, who has guided the Thunder to a top three finish in nine of the last 10 years, has brought Esparza along slowly this year and it could pay off as he slides into a top position for Desert Vista, who has also been without Spencer Clason most of the season because of the lingering effects of a concussion.
“As much as my heart breaks for Carter, I am excited to see how everyone is picking up their teammates and rallying around them,” Hanson said after the Thunder finished third at sectionals. “We have two ways of looking at it. We can be devastated and fall backwards or we can use it as an opportunity. We are doing the latter.
“Our motto is ‘All in,’” and the next guy has to man up.”
Mountain Pointe girls qualified after finishing seventh at sectionals last week. After missing out last season as a squad, it gives senior Cera Hassinan, who finished 27th last year, a level of comfort to have teammates like Francesca Olguin, who has battled back from cancer, alongside her.
“I won’t be the only one running around the track this year,” she said. “It’s so nerve-wracking before state so it will be nice to have my teammates with me. We get nervous but we help each other.”
The Pride boys didn’t qualify but had at least one individual qualifier in Avi Dasgupta, who finished 49th at the sectional.
Horizon Honors boys missed out on qualifying as a team, but had three individuals finish within the top 60 so the Eagles will have some runners competing, while junior Mikaela Martin finished second in sectionals as she tries to improve on last year’s runner-up finish.
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