Christina Yakaboski didn’t have to break her back to qualify for the upcoming New York State girls cross-country championships. She had already done that — break her back, that is.
Yakaboski didn’t go through her usual training regimen this past summer. After feeling some back pain, the Riverhead High School senior went to see a doctor and was in for quite a surprise.
“It turned out that I had fractured my back like years ago, I think playing soccer,” she said. “So, we wanted to just take some precautions and just make sure I was resting because my plan now is to run for another four years, so I wanted to make sure I could do that and just live healthy later on, so I was willing to kind of sacrifice this season.”
Yakaboski didn’t begin training until late August and although she has run in all of Riverhead’s races, she has sort of eased her way into the season. Then, one day last week, she told her coach, Justin Cobis: “I feel good. I feel back, ready to go.”
Yakaboski salvaged her season in the Section XI Championships Friday. She turned in her fastest time of the year at Sunken Meadow State Park — 19 minutes, 47.45 seconds — good enough for fourth place in Class A and a ticket to her first state meet. She will run Saturday in the state championships at SUNY/Plattsburgh.
It had to be doubly gratifying for Yakaboski, who had missed qualifying for last year’s state meet by one place and a mere 1.86 seconds.
“I’m very excited,” she said. “I definitely feel like I deserve that. I feel, last year, that was definitely a possibility for me and I just didn’t [qualify]. I feel that I should have, so I definitely was not going to let it go this time.”
Yakaboski and all the other runners had to contend with frigid, windy conditions. The temperature was 37 degrees at the start of the meet, with a wind-chill factor making it feel as if it was in the 20s. But Yakaboski said her days playing soccer outdoors in the winter had prepared her for the conditions.
What was her game plan for the race?
“Usually I do have a plan, I do have a very specific plan,” she said, “but on the [starting] line today, I was like, ‘I think I’m just going to wing it,’ and that’s what I did, basically. I knew I had to stay at the top, but I just wanted to kind of have fun.”
When Yakaboski saw the leaders set a pace early on that was a little too slow for her liking, she moved in front. “I think over the years I definitely developed a lot more confidence when I race, so I feel like I definitely tapped into that today and wasn’t afraid to lead for a little bit, so I’m definitely proud of myself for that,” she said. “I wasn’t leaving anything to chance.”
Cobis said Yakaboski led for two miles of the 3.2-mile race. “She ran a very smart race, so she put herself in a perfect spot,” he said. “She knows she doesn’t have the strongest kick, so she gave herself a lead enough at the end where she could hold on.”
Commack senior Fiona McLoughlin was first in 19:40.57, with Deer Park sophomore Gianna Marquez (19:46.64) and Lindenhurst senior Veronica Szygalowicz (19:47.05) grabbing the next two spots.
Yakaboski crossed the finish line with her second-fastest time ever on the course. Last year she clocked 19:45.18.
“It’s her best race ever,” Cobis said. “Whether it’s her best time or not, it’s her best race.”
Yakaboski is the first Riverhead girl to qualify for a state meet since Katie Skinner in 2009, said Cobis.
Another Riverhead senior, Megan Kielbasa, who had a splendid season, finished 18th in 20:37.76. She was later followed by teammates Linda Pomiranceva (21st in 20:44.33), Lauren Matyka (58th in 21:43.34), Emma Conroy (59th in 21:43.68), Madison Kelly (79th in 22:25.27) and Kristina DeRaveniere (95th in 22:51.93).
Riverhead finished fourth in the team scoring with 137 points. Ward Melville was first with 73.
How much does qualifying for the state meet mean to Yakaboski?
“Definitely a lot,” she said. “I came in as a freshman. I had no idea what I was doing. That was my first year running cross country, and to end my senior season going to the state meet is probably [my] best moment [in] cross country.”
Shoreham-Wading River senior Nicole Garcia will also make her first appearance in the state meet. Garcia was fourth in Class B in 20:14.78.
“This is like my dream and I’ve been pushing for this for two years,” she said.
Also racing for SWR were Emily Cook (17th in 22:06.67), India McKay (27th in 22:47.54), Elenora Undrus (35th in 23:20.37), Colleen Ohrtman (45th in 24:30.08), Isadora Petretti (47th in 24:41.03) and Kelly Logan (49th in 25:11.20).
As with the other runners, Garcia had to battle a nasty headwind down the homestretch. She said: “I just had to fight the wind … I could feel the wind pushing me back. I was just trying to get through it.”
A place in the state meet was waiting for her at the finish line.
“Oh, I had to make it,” she said. “It was my only chance this year.”
Photo caption: Riverhead senior Christina Yakaboski, who learned this summer that she had fractured her back years ago, qualified for her first state meet with her fourth-place finish in Class A at the Section XI Championships. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)