Ayauna Smith stood near the fence line at Norris-Penrose Stadium wide-eyed and at a loss for words following her race Oct. 17.
Despite a mask covering Smith’s mouth and nose — an addition to cross-country due to the ongoing pandemic — her eyes clearly expressed shock.
Her finish at the Class 3A state cross-country meet — where she placed 83rd out of 100 runners and clocked in at 23 minutes, 57.30 seconds — made history.
Smith, the lone Southeast runner, had just learned she was the first Harrison High School girl to qualify for the state cross-country race in more than a decade.
“That is pretty amazing,” she said. “I like that a lot.”
The last time Harrison had a woman racing at state was 2008, when Danielle Tova finished 91st at the annual race.
The Panthers were a mainstay at the event in the early 2000s, sending boys teams in 2001-02, 2004-07 and girls teams 2004-07, along with individual boys and girls qualifiers throughout the decade.
However, following William Edwards and Joseph Archuleta finishing 23rd and 33rd, respectively, at the 2009 boys race, the Panthers headed to an 11-year drought.
Enter Smith, whose performance serves as a seed planted for future Panthers.
Coach Patrick Lannen said the staff recognized Smith’s potential as a cross-country runner during her freshman year.
During the second race of the season, Smith kept pace with Magnifique Niyonyishu, Harrison’s top female runner, and never appeared gassed running alongside Niyonyishu.
“That was special and we knew [Smith] would do big things from there,” he said. “Seeing her form as well as her natural speed — it was all there. It was just a matter of getting together the speed, endurance and that last component of her believing in herself. She did that this year.”
Placing for state is even more special because Smith doesn’t really prefer long-distance running.
Al Melo, Harrison athletic director, said: “She’s a sprinter,” highlighting the accomplishment of switching styles and succeeding at both.
In three years of track with the Panthers, Smith qualified for state track her freshman and sophomore years and — barring COVID restrictions — expects to return to Jeffco Stadium in Lakewood this year as a sprinter in the state finals.
The dual expertise makes her stand out among runners.
“Oftentimes sprinters are scared to run anything more than a 200 or 400,” Lannen said. “It took a lot of development to get her to this level as a senior but she’s a complete runner now.”
Smith hoped her best friend, teammate and fellow senior Adrian Sanchez, could join her at the final cross-country race of the season and their prep careers, but Sanchez narrowly missed the opportunity.
In the boys race, Sanchez finished sixth at regionals at Elmwood Golf Course in Pueblo on Oct. 9. Only two individual competitors per region could qualify for state and a pair of runners finished in front of Sanchez, thwarting her opportunity to run at Norris-Penrose.
“That hurt because our goal was for both to qualify for state our senior year,” Smith said. “[At regionals] when they said my name, I was happy but I was like, ‘What about my best friend?’ It hurts, but I know we can still do it for track.”
Lannen recognizes the foundation laid by the senior duo and hopes to recreate the successful formula with future runners.
“This is that next step forward that we needed to take,” Lannen said. “We’ll have to do a lot more recruiting but we want an entire team here. This is the breakthrough that we needed and I’m excited for what’s to come.”