The sun was shining brightly on that November Friday at Michigan International Speedway when the Pioneer girls’ cross country team crossed the finish line in first place in the Division 1 race. It was almost as bright as the smile running across Cookie Baugh’s face a few minutes after the final results were announced.
It’s been a few months now, but Baugh is probably still smiling. And why not? The Pioneer junior put on an amazing performance and her team ran away with a state title despite having a young group on the course that day.
But two years ago, Baugh could never have pictured herself standing here with a state title and a top-five overall finish because, well, she could barely stand.
“My freshman year I didn’t know any of this was even possible,” Baugh said just moments after her team finished first at the MHSAA Division 1 Cross Country State Finals at MIS. “I had a broken hip and couldn’t walk, let alone run and that really set me back. And last year was just trying to keep building myself back up to speed.”
Baugh broke her hip during a race and it was season over for the ninth-grader before she could ever hit her stride. But she battled back last year and had a strong sophomore season. And this year, she took it to a whole different level.
“I was so looking forward to this race because I was 100 percent,” she said. “I was excited and ready to go.”
And off she went.
Pioneer landed two runners in the top five on Nov. 7, including Baugh, and finished with 129 points, more than a few steps ahead of second-place Traverse City Central (168).
Pioneer freshman Rachel Forsyth took first in every event she ran leading up to the State Finals and won her race at MIS but based on times finished second overall on the day. Only a junior, Baugh had a fantastic run, placing fifth overall with a time of 18:10.78, a few steps ahead of Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central Clara James-Heer (18:12.99).
“I’m just feeling super excited and super proud of myself and my teammates,” said Baugh, just moments after the official results were announced. “It’s a great feeling. I’m just so happy.”
The finish capped off an amazing junior year for Baugh. She won the Sept. 16 race with Brighton and took second in five other races – all to Forsyth. She ran third at the SEC Championships, MHSAA Pre-Regional and the Regional at Lake Erie. After the state finals, she ran a PR time of 17:51.3 and placed 10th at the Michigan Meet of Champions on Nov. 14.
Baugh always runs with confidence – a big part of her success – and as soon as she left the starting line at the state finals she knew “I got this.” She had trained hard for the big moment. Really, the hard work was already done and now was the time to cash in her chips and earn her payout.
“The entire run I knew that I couldn’t have any doubts in myself,” she said that Friday afternoon. “I kept thinking positive thoughts and knew that if I could stick with the runners in my pack I would do well. My goal was to stay with those girls in the pack and then outrun them at the end and that’s what I did. I was just so proud of myself.”
Baugh says running in a state final is “insanely intense” when it comes to the mental approach of competing against the very best. “It really takes a toll on you and even after it takes a while to process everything,” she said. “It’s over so fast.”
And it’s over faster for her, obviously.
Baugh ran into the finals with somewhat modest goals.
“I just wanted to finish Top 10 or Top 15 and push myself as hard as I could,” she said.
Baugh pushed herself all the way up to fourth in the race she ran and landed fifth overall so mission accomplished and then some.
Having the state finals broken into two races was just another strange circumstance for a very strange year overall. “We approached it by just trying to do our best, get the times and positions we want and see how it worked out in the end,” she said. “It’s all you really can do.”
Pioneer ran in the race that featured the top two teams from each Regional so they were running against the better competition of the two races which helped push them. It was just another challenge to run past.
“We’ve had some injuries and setbacks during the year but we knew if we were healthy we would do well,” Baugh said. “This is like a sisterhood and everyone cares about each other and looks out for each other. And that only comes from a lot of trust, and building that kind of bond with each other is very important. We work together as a team and know that every time we go out to race it’s for the team and for each other.”
Baugh is looking to continue her running career at the next level.
“I want to run in college and I started looking a little but I’m still trying to figure it out and find that perfect fit for me,” she said. “I want to add up all the different factors before I start narrowing it down, but running will be a big part of the decision and I have gotten some calls already.”
Don’t expect the phone to stop ringing. Baugh came all the way back from a difficult injury and there is a wide open course now in front of her and she’s ready to make that next step.
“It was hard trying to come back from that injury and I doubted myself a lot during my recovery,” she says. “And the process was super slow for me. It took a year to just get back to where I was and feel 100 percent again. I’m just so happy it worked out and super proud of myself.”
And she deserves to be super proud of herself because she’s the one who made it happen.