MILLTOWN — Tiffany Herrera had the finish line in mind when she entered the final 800 meters at the DIAA Division II girls cross country state championship meet on Dec. 5 at Killens Pond State Park in Felton. Right behind her was Tatnall’s standout sophomore, Lydia Colasante, the defending individual state champion.
“The turning point was the last 800. That’s when I started thinking, ‘I know I need to go now or else I’m never going to go.’ I just tried focusing as hard as I could to keep striding, and I did it,” Herrera said at a reception for the cross country team at the school just before the Christmas break.
Herrera ended up crossing the finish line on the muddy track at Killens Pond 11 seconds ahead of Colasante, who was the 2019-20 Gatorade Player of the Year for cross country in Delaware. Herrera’s time was 40 seconds better than the Division I champ. She was Saint Mark’s first girls individual champion, and the Spartans would finish the meet as the runner-up to Ursuline for the second consecutive year.
“During the race I was so hopeful,” Herrera said. “I knew I needed to be aggressive to win, but there were points in the race where the course was bad, and I was starting to second-guess myself if I could win. But the last 200 meters I just gave it all I had. I knew I had to do it for the team, so I just tried my best, and it worked out. And I’m really happy with how I did the race.”
Winning the individual championship seemed like a natural progression for Herrera, a junior. She came in third as a freshman, then finished second to Colasante in 2019.
The 2020 state championship was unique, as so many things have been, because of the coronavirus. Normally, all of the runners begin at the same time, but in an attempt to reduce crowding, all of the day’s races were done in heats, so even after finishing her race, Herrera had to wait to see how the other heats played out.
That was the system used all season, so the runners were used to it. It was strange, however, to hear guns going off while running, Herrera said, and not knowing if the heat would have to start over.
Another change was competing with no fans in attendance. “It was weird. Not that many people go to cross country meets, but the parents couldn’t be there, and it was just the varsity seven. So, it was really quiet at meets. It was such a weird feeling.”
Her coach, Michael DiGennaro, praised Herrera for her work and her leadership.
“From the moment she stepped foot on campus, she has led this team with the competitive spark that has made us contenders at the state level for the last three seasons. She simply asked what it would take to be a champion, and then she spent an entire summer and fall focused on that one goal,” DiGennaro said.
Herrera, a three-time first-team all-state selection, wasn’t the only Spartan in the top five; in fact, she wasn’t even the only Herrera. Her sister, Stephanie, came in fifth to help Saint Mark’s to that second-place showing. The twins made good use of their ability to train together.
“Over summer and all of quarantine, she was such a good training partner to have. We always talk about how hopefully next year we can go one and two in a cross country meet or states. That’s one of our biggest goals for next season, finish right there with each other,” she said.
None of the six Spartans who ran in the meet are seniors. The Herreras are juniors. The other juniors were Kelly Barker and Hannah Heredia, and sophomores Kaileigh Brady and Natalie Donaldson joined them. Tiffany Herrera said what makes the team special was how close they are. They spend so much time together that they feel like family, she said. They were pleased with the effort at Killens Pond.
“Coming in second was really exciting. We wanted to bring home a trophy. We did all try our best no matter the injuries or the sicknesses. That’s what really mattered at the end of the day,” she said.
Herrera started running track in sixth grade and cross country in eighth grade at All Saints Catholic School in Elsmere. She likes how running combines individual effort within a team concept.
With the lack of a varsity indoor track season, Herrera will keep training for the spring season. This summer, she’ll be looking to shave a few seconds off her average time in preparation for her senior campaign.
“I really want to run 17:30-ish, as close to 17 flat as I could get. I want to win states again and hopefully we win as a team. That would be amazing,” she said.
DiGennaro said it is possible. “Our future continues to look bright. What we love about the group is that they know how to work extremely hard, but they can have fun and make it entertaining at the same time.”
Herrera wants to run for a Division I college program, with an ultimate goal of competing in the Pan-American Games or the Olympics. She knows she is not doing this by herself, crediting her teammates and family with giving her motivation and support.
The reception at Saint Mark’s, held in a socially distanced fashion in the cafeteria, also included the state champion volleyball team. Herrera said she was proud of all the fall sports teams at Saint Mark’s. The field hockey and soccer teams made their respective state tournaments, and the football team finished 6-1, falling just short of making the condensed Division II postseason field.
“Saint Mark’s had a really good sports season this fall. I’m proud of all the teams, especially the volleyball team,” she said. “I wish we could have had a really big student section there because I know we would have had so much fun.”