Defending Class 3A champion Sacred Heart girls cross country team returns strong nucleus

In the dream world of a cross country coach, there are many possibilities, but some definite certainties.

There would be dozens of runners on the team. Most would be experienced, and the remainder would bring a fresh and renewed sense of energy to the pack. They all would be talented, they would be eager and they’d be hungry for success.

Welcome to the world of Sacred Heart Academy cross country coach Greg Caro, where all these things are true.

The Cardinals won the Class 3A state championship in 2013 when their first five runners placed in the top 18. Four of those runners return this season, and only one is a senior. A stable of several dozen gifted runners is vying for the final three places that Caro can enter in the state championship meet in Natchitoches this fall.

Nice problems to have, but Sacred Heart isn’t content with sitting on its laurels but is gunning for the school’s eighth state cross country title in nine years.

After scoring 35 points in last year’s meet, this year’s team says not only can it repeat as state champs, but it can score a perfect 15 points in the meet (meaning that the top five runners in the Class 3A race would be wearing Sacred Heart bibs.)

“Within a week of state last year, the top 12 (runners,) they started chatting and decided they wanted to score 15 points this year,” Caro said. “That’s incredibly difficult, and it’s a superior goal.”

But Caro, now in his 17th year at Sacred Heart, said it’s a possibility. The Cardinals return individual state champ Catherine Belle Paulk, a junior, who completed the 3-mile race in 19:25.07. Close behind are eighth-grader Madeline Kling who finished third with a time of 19:50.86; senior Megan Jackson who was fifth in 20:11.07; and eighth-Mary Nusloch who was eighth in 20:33.16. Among the runners vying for top positions on the team are seventh-graders Olivia Gaines (54th overall in 2013) and Olivia Pitt; eighth graders Gigi McCleod and CeCe Cook; freshman Chloe Bianchini; sophomore Jane Dugal; and junior Margot Childs.

“We’re competing against ourselves (in a way,)” Caro said. “It’s a great problem to have. They make my job easy as a head coach, except at the end when I have to choose my (top) seven (for the state meet.)”

Sacred Heart’s top returning runners agreed their team is successful, to an extent, because of the fun they have while training. Caro said it’s a light-hearted team, and that the girls provide plenty enough competition amongst themselves to keep all of them sharp in races.

“The competition between us is intense,” Paulk said. “It’s not obvious. Off the course it’s all fun, but during workouts, we really push each other really hard. None of it is mean, but we all really want to win.”

As the most experienced runners on the team, Paulk and Jackson said they relish the chance to lead their younger teammates this season.

“It’s a big responsibility, but it’s worthwhile,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen others doing it from the time I was in eighth grade, so I’m looking forward to it.”

The younger runners such as Kling and Nusloch said they have to keep pushing as they already are looked to for leadership because of their showings as seventh-graders last season.

“I definitely think I’m better where I am now than I was (a year ago,)” Nusloch said. “I still have a lot of improving to do.”

“I’m not really sure what to expect this year, but I know I have to keep pushing,” Kling said.

And Gaines, who is the fifth fastest returnee from last year’s squad, agreed she has to work hard — not only to beat the competition, but to stave off her quick teammates, as well. As a seventh-grader who stands 4 feet, 8 inches, she said it can be hard to be a younger runner in the elder prep field.

“It is harder sometimes,” she said. “It can be intimidating. A lot of girls are bigger than me.”

Few are faster, however, and that’s the reality that other Class 3A teams will face when they race Sacred Heart this season.

“I really do (think we can score 15 points at state,)” Paulk said. “It’s August, and we’re already going fast. I think we can do it.”