Northwestern cross country coach Calvin Hudgins can only wonder what this season would be like if the runners who started as Trojans had stayed.
Hudgins lost Hannah Robinson, who was re-zoned to Rock Hill High School when South Pointe opened two years ago.
He lost sisters Tiayonna and Quanika Blackmon near the end of track season two years ago when their family moved to Fort Mill.
All three are highly competitive runners and threats to win any time they line up. But Hudgins held on to senior Mary Kate DuBard, who is proving to be the best of the bunch. She's the No. 1-ranked girls runner in the state among all classifications.
"The way Mary Kate trained all summer, I figured she could climb near the top and compete for this year's individual state championship if she stayed healthy,'' Hudgins said. "She was our No. 1 runner last year and was near the top in our region with Tiayonna and her teammate at Fort Mill, Jenna Callahan.
"Mary Kate also runs track for me and was third last spring in the 800 meters. She is drawing interest from several Division I schools who want her to join their programs.''
If Hudgins had Robinson and the Blackmons, his girls would be a favorite to win the Class AAAA state championship this year, as his boys teams did in 2004 and 2005.
Robinson is ranked No. 5 and Tiayonna Blackmon has been in and out of the top 10 all season. That doesn't take away from what DuBard has accomplished. She is favored to win The Herald/York County Cross Country Meet today at Clover High School.
DuBard has not lost in a dual meet this season. She won the Wendy's Invitational in Charlotte, beating three defending state champions. She won the Trojans Invitational and was second at the Coaches Classic in Columbia earlier this season.
Her 18:11 is the fastest time in South Carolina this year, not far off from the state record of 17:58.
The surprising aspect of her success is DuBard is what cross country coaches call a late bloomer. She didn't start the sport at an early age.
"I was looking for a sport to play in the spring of my freshman year and decided to run distance races on the track team,'' she said. "I liked it so much that I went out for cross country my sophomore year.
"I didn't expect all of this to happen. I trained hard to improve, but to be considered No. 1 exceeds my expectations. I go out every race and try to push the pace.''
DuBard, also an outstanding basketball player, comes by her athletic ability naturally. It runs in her family.
In 1973, her dad, Rocky DuBard, was the first Northwestern player chosen for the Shrine Bowl. He's a volunteer assistant baseball coach at Northwestern and a fixture at nearly every Trojans athletic event.
Her brother, Rob, was a standout offensive lineman for the Trojans' football team. DuBard's other brother, Chad, played golf at Northwestern and attends Clemson.
And although it's not in the family, DuBard's boyfriend, Northwestern quarterback Will King, is also a basketball and baseball player. He catches every cross country meet he can.
"I ran 40 to 45 miles a week this summer to get ready for the season,'' DuBard said. "Running for coach Hudgins is a good experience for all of us. Because of him, we get exposure. College coaches know that if you run for him, you're going to be well-coached.''
DuBard enjoys competing against Robinson and the Blackmons, saying they push her and make her run harder. She gets another chance against them today with hopes of keeping her record unblemished.
Hudgins has no doubt she will. He expects DuBard and Robinson to put on a show.
"I don't look back at what might have been if we hadn't lost Hannah, Tiayonna and Quanika,'' he said. "They are good runners and we might have been in good shape to win the state. It's a nice thought, but I'm happy with the kids we have.
"Losing Hannah was big. Losing the Blackmons hurt too. But I wouldn't trade Mary Kate for anybody.''
n NOTES: The boys race for the individual championship will likely come down to Fort Mill's Mark Blackmon and Clover's Nick Francis. Blackmon is ranked third in the state and Francis is fifth.
n TEAMS: Fort Mill's boys are ranked No. 2 in Class AAAA and Northwestern is No. 5. On the girls side, Fort Mill is No. 5 and Northwestern is No. 9.
• When: Today
• Where: Clover High School
• Times: 4:45 p.m. -- JV boys and girls; 5:20 p.m. -- varsity girls; 5:50 p.m. -- varsity boys
• Participants: Clover, Fort Mill, Nation Ford, Northwestern, Rock Hill, South Pointe and York