The maelstrom of emotions in which Haleigh Morales found herself enveloped heading into the Nike Cross National [NXN] New York Regional certainly could have sent the North Rockland senior into a tailspin.
Morales was coming off one of the worst performances of her career, a sluggish effort at the New York State Federation meet [Nov. 23]. That she learned her grandfather had passed away earlier in the day shortly after the race ended only served to darken what was already a somber mood.
It was a stark contrast to the week before, where in Plattsburgh, Morales had the highest Speed Rated race of her career, a popular method of weighing Cross Country performances across different courses. In effect, Morales ran thirty seconds faster than she was projected, compared to her run at Sectionals, also held at Bowdoin Park. It would seem her most frequented course, located in Wappingers Falls just thirty miles from her High School, had been the hardest to conquer.
The emotional roller coaster could rile even the most seasoned veteran. Morales had been running for North Rockland since 7th Grade. Nobody could be be considered more a veteran than her.
So, as she headed to Bowdoin Park for what many expected would be her final high school race on Nov. 30, Morales did some soul searching, turned to her grandfather for inspiration and then proceeded to turn in the performance of her life - finishing seventh in the NXN Qualifier [18:37.7] to earn a spot in the Dec. 7 national finals in Portland, Ore.
"Going into this race, on the bus ride up, I was thinking this could be my last cross country race," said the Boston College-bound Morales, who ran in the NXN National Finals as an eighth-grader when North Rockland qualified as a team. "It's definitely been kind of a whirlwind of emotions for me. I think that if you find the reason why you love a sport, which for me is my team, then you just focus on that.
Bo' made a surprise visit to Morales' College announcement photo session
"When I was at my grandfather's funeral, I thought about that. You don't combine the two [situations]. You don't let one affect the other. So I just stayed positive when it came to the race and overall it worked out pretty well for me. When my team showed up at the wake, it really just showed me how much my team means to me, how great they are and that I'd be willing to do it for them."
While that emotional roller coaster had reached its nadir at the Federation meet, Morales was determined to end the season on a positive note so the thought of not racing wasn't even an option. She and the rest of the team love running at Bowdoin - she says it's like a home course for them - so much so that she named her dog Bo, short for Bowdoin. The familiarity with the course and a pre-race warmup with her best friend, next door neighbor, teammate and eventual winner Katelyn Tuohy [17:06.6] only served to buoy the 17-year-old's spirits.
Tuohy finishes, and turns to await Morales' finish
North Rockland head coach Brian Diglio gave the team a rousing pre-race talk, according to Morales, that got her fired up and allowed her to deal with some starting-line jitters. While Tuohy did what Tuohy does, Morales did something she hadn't done in a while - she conquered the hilly terrain and ran her best time at Bowdoin in three years.
"I just went out and I tried to have fun," Morales said. "I wanted to focus on having fun and it was the most fun I ever had in a race. When I crossed the finish line, I couldn't believe I was in seventh place and made it [to Oregon]. It was really surreal.
"When I was warming up with Katelyn, I was a little nervous but I was excited for her because I knew she would continue. My last race was definitely on my mind, though. Saturday [Nov. 23] could not have gone worse. It was one of my worst days ever. It was eye-opening and a wakeup call. You know when things can happen so you just have to enjoy everything."
While Morales didn't dedicate the NXN race to her grandfather, she said she prayed to him before and after the race and that he was definitely on her mind all day. Her big finish provided her with the redemption for which she was looking and brought her solace in that her grandfather was somewhere smiling, proud of what she had accomplished.
Tony and Karin Morales, Haleigh's parents, admitted they were a bit shocked that their daughter finished seventh. Both will be heading out to Oregon with her - Karin Morales made the trip solo four years ago when her daughter was an at-large team member.
"She's grown up a lot," Karin Morales said. "She learns from bad races and can put things behind her. Just when you start to have little inklings of doubt about what she can do, she pulls off a race like that. And I'm happy that she made it with a friend and neighbor [Tuohy]. They are two seniors who got to go together in eighth grade."
Tony Morales, who has stayed close to his daughter's running throughout her career, has followed along from the sidelines, shooting photos for MileSplit NY. He's become as much a mainstay as his daughter at meets. For him, it'll be his first and last Cross Country National Meet as well.
Morales as a Freshman, already a two-year veteran of the team.
Haleigh Morales was running cross country for the first time as an eighth grader and said she didn't know what she was doing, adding that she didn't realize how big of a deal reaching the finals was at the time.
"As a senior, you see all the hard work and the ups and downs that we've gone through," said Haleigh Morales, who's seen her team inventory change shape over the numerous years. "I've also grown so much closer to Katelyn, too. It means so much more to go [to NXN] as a senior than as an eighth grader who really didn't know what was going on.
"This doesn't say as much about me, though, as it does about the girls I am surrounded by and my coach. They are the ones that got me to a point where I was able to compete for a spot at NXN. They got me to believe I could do it and they were the only reason I was able to do what I did."