The boys and girls Howard County cross country championship races may have looked similar on the surface.
Both races featured a senior Oakland Mills runner who beat a talented pack of contenders by several seconds — Baidy Ba on the boys side and Ella Harris for the girls.
However, the two runners’ paths to that overcast Saturday in April were not at all similar.
Ba’s talent was evident from the first time he ran distance at practice, but he was first a sprinter and it took some convincing to even get him out to cross country practice. Harris, meanwhile, went from being one of the slowest runners in the county as a freshman to its fastest as a senior.
“Baidy and Ella both have different stories and different backgrounds, and they’re very different runners,” said Oakland Mills coach Chris Brewington. “I think track and cross country are sports where you don’t have to be the best athlete or the most talented person to pull stuff like this off. Ella and Baidy both work so hard and are so dedicated.”
Despite their different paths, Ba and Harris both convincingly won their respective county championship races to earn the spring 2021 Howard County Times/Columbia Flier Cross Country Runner of the Year awards.
“I get more excited for Baidy’s races than I do for my own. Watching him race and seeing him do so well brings me so much joy,” Harris said. “Baidy’s been a role model to me. Seeing him win and be successful has always made me push myself to be better. I really look up to the way he approaches everything and how he’s given his all.”
“This is so well-deserved for Ella,” Ba said. “I’m extremely proud of her for coming out on top. People weren’t expecting Ella to win, but I knew she could. I couldn’t be more proud of her.”
Ella Harris, Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year
Harris hated the Pacer.
She always finished last on the dreaded gym class test with the horrifying beeps. That’s one of many reasons why she was apprehensive about joining the cross country team her freshman year.
Harris danced for about a decade before high school, but when she stopped, her mom wanted her to participate in a sport at Oakland Mills.
On top of her lack of passion for running, Harris was concerned with whether she’d have the time to play a sport with the number of honors and Gifted & Talented courses she was taking.
“I had no desire to play a sport with a ball or be a cheerleader, so that left me with cross country,” Harris quipped.
She emailed back and forth with then-coach Phil Lang — first asking when tryouts were, then emailing back to say never mind and then a third time in early September asking if there was a spot on the team for her.
“My first day I remember I was so nervous I didn’t want to get out of the car,” Harris said. “That first practice was the hardest thing I’d ever done.”
Her first race was a junior varsity meet at the Prince George’s County Invitational, and the course had a steep hill. She finished in 31:10 — about 12 minutes slower than her current 5K time.
“I had to walk up that hill, but I did eventually finish,” Harris said. “Even though it was the girls JV race, I got a ribbon and I was so proud of myself for finishing.”
She said that race was a defining moment for her not just as a harrier but also as a person. She remembers walking up that hill and having the boys varsity runners cheering for her.
“The team was so supportive,” she said. “That really introduced me to team camaraderie. Even though I was a freshman and the slowest girl on the team, they really welcomed me onto the team.”
By the end of that initial season, she had joined the varsity team and went on to finish 62nd out of 71 runners at the county championship — running about seven minutes faster than in her first race. Harris progressively improved in the next few seasons, finishing 53rd at counties as a sophomore and then taking a big leap as a junior by coming in 14th.
Entering this season, she was the 10th fastest runner returning from the 2019 campaign.
During the COVID-shortened regular season this spring, Harris finished third in the Scorpions’ first meet, second in the next and then first in the team’s final competition. The first-place finish at Oakland Mills’ home meet against five other county teams was the first time Harris had ever won a cross country race.
Oakland Mills coach Brian Shadrick said he knew Harris had a shot at the county title when she beat Atholton’s Aanchal Kasargod — one of the most talented and experienced runners in the county — at that meet.
“When she beat Aanchal at our home meet, we felt like there was that possibility that she would win it all two weeks later,” he said.
At the county championships, Harris hung with the pack of talented runners — including Kasargod, River Hill’s Faith Meininger and Howard’s Nimrit Ahuja — for the first two and a half miles, and then outkicked them in the final 800. She finished in 18:58 — her first time breaking 19 minutes.
“My experience with cross country is the best example of when I put work and dedication into something that it will pay off,” Harris said. “It’s not because I’m naturally gifted at running but instead because I had to put in the work and train to get where I am. If I can do it, so can anyone else.”
There’s one more reason Harris decided four years ago to run cross country, though.
Ever since she was a young girl, Harris had high hopes of attending a prestigious university. Both of her parents attended Ivy League schools. She wanted to do the same, and playing a sport looks good on a college application — as does the 10 Advanced Placement classes she’s taken, the viola she plays for the school’s upper orchestra, the dance company she’s a member of, the food pantry she coordinates and the Active Minds chapter she founded at Oakland Mills.
But she quickly learned that cross country meant more to her than just an extracurricular activity.
“To be able to run out the stresses of my academic life has definitely helped my mental health,” Harris said. “As someone who struggles with anxiety, I don’t think I would have been able to cope as well or manage my stress as well without running on a daily basis or talking with my teammates. It’s definitely something that’s kept me sane over these years.”
Harris will attend Princeton University this fall. She’s going to fully focus on her studies, but she said she will either run for the college’s club team or just for fun around campus.
“Either way, I will definitely continue running.”
Baidy Ba, Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year
“Hey man, why aren’t you answering my emails?” Brewington said to Ba on the first day of the 2018-19 school year.
Brewington, who also coaches track at Oakland Mills, told Ba during his freshman outdoor track season that he wanted him to run cross country in the fall.
Ba, who showed flashes of distance-running talent in the spring, didn’t want to, and he made it quite clear by not responding to any of Brewington’s emails that summer.
“I was definitely ignoring the emails,” Ba said with a laugh. “Cross country, the way that people talk about it, some people were like why would you waste your time running up hills.”
But Brewington wasn’t going to give up that easily.
He looked up Ba’s schedule, marched into his math class, pulled him out and put him on the spot.
Ba took the hint. This coach wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
“I showed up and ran 1,200-meter repeats in my Kyrie’s, black sweatpants and a long-sleeve shirt,” Ba said, again laughing. “It was so hot, and I was trying to keep up with all the fast guys.”
“He had basketball shoes on, and he ran this tough workout and hung in there,” Brewington said. “That’s when we knew that this kid was the real deal.”
Ba looks back on his hesitancy to run cross country with laughter because he can’t imagine his life today without it. Without his success as a runner, Ba doesn’t know if he’d be the type of person or student he is today, or if he’d even be going to college, which he will do this fall as a Kent State commit.
“Going to practice every day kept me healthy and on the right path and doing the right things,” he said. “Freshman year I didn’t have any motivation with school, but ever since I started doing track I pushed myself in the classroom too. [Running] saved me from going down a bad path academically.”
Ba’s success at that first cross country practice wasn’t a surprise to Brewington, though. He knew from the very beginning that Ba was talented.
When Ba showed up to run sprints for the outdoor track team in the spring of his freshman year, the coach saw he had some speed but that he would be better suited as a middle-distance or distance runner.
So he decided to test him. He had Ba go on a distance run with the top runners on the Scorpions’ cross country team, and he told the runners: “On the way back, pick up the pace and lose him.”
“They came back, and Baidy was right behind them,” Brewington remembers. “I looked at the captain, and I said ‘I thought I told you to lose him.’ He said back, ‘We tried.’”
“That’s when we knew he’d be a distance runner,” Brewington said.
It took Ba a little longer to see his potential as a harrier.
He broke 20 minutes in a full 5K at his first cross country meet — only 10 days after his first practice — and then finished 16th in 16:36 at the Howard County championship that season.
His next accomplishment was during track season. He won a bronze medal at the county championship in the 3,200 and qualified for states in three events — the mile, two-mile and 4x800-meter relay.
The success motivated him to train for distance running over the summer, and his results in the fall showed it. He was the second best runner in Howard County behind 2019 Runner of the Year Anish Nanjappa, won the 2A West Region race and finished fourth at the state meet.
In the regional meet, Ba topped Kyle Lund of Oakdale — a nine-time state champion in mid-distance track events and that season’s 2A state champion — by nearly eight seconds.
“This dude was someone I looked up to ever since I started taking distance seriously. When I first saw him run I said I wanted to be good like him,” Ba said. “That was probably one of my happiest moments knowing I could beat one of the best in Maryland.”
Due to the COVID-shortened season this spring, Ba only ran in three races, but he won all three. Heading into the county championship meet at Centennial, Ba knew with Long Reach’s Cameron Hindle and Centennial’s Antonio Camacho-Bucks — two runners who have elite mile times — nipping at his heels that he needed to break the course record to win the race.
Ba and Hindle both broke the record, but Ba’s time of 15:15 was about five seconds faster.
“It was always super fun racing against them,” Ba said. “I knew with how stacked the county is that it would take a fast time, and that made me even more proud to come out on top.”
Also named to first team All-County (selections based on voting by Howard County coaches):
Nimrit Ahuja, Howard, junior
Ahuja is one of seven Howard High runners to make the All-County team, including one of three first-team selections. Ahuja was normally the fastest runner for Howard, winning two of the team’s three regular-season meets. At the county championships, the junior finished sixth overall with a time of 19:23 to help lead the Lions to their third straight county crown. The first-team All-County honor is the second straight for Ahuja, who finished second at the county championship last season behind teammate and 2019 Runner of the Year Amanda Eliker.
Aanchal Kasargod, Atholton, senior
Kasargod has been one of the top distance runners in the county for the past two seasons, earning first-team All-County honors in two straight seasons. She finished fifth at the county championship meet as a junior and third this season with a personal-record time of 19:13. As the only Atholton runner on the All-County team, Kasargod was also excellent in the regular season, finishing second twice and first once.
Faith Meininger, River Hill, senior
Meininger ends her illustrious cross country career at River Hill with her third first-team All-County selection. She’s been one of the best harriers in Howard County since the beginning of her freshman year. At the 2017 county championship meet, Meininger finished four-tenths of a second behind senior teammate Jasmine Tiamfook. As a sophomore, Meininger finished third at the county title race that Eliker won. This season, after missing her junior campaign due to injury, Meininger returned with a second-place finish, finishing in 19:05 behind Harris.
Hannah Schwab, Howard, junior
Schwab is an All-County selection for the first time in her career. She led Howard’s pack of seven runners at the county championship meet, crossing the line in 19:21 to finish fifth. While it was her first time running in the varsity county championship race, it wasn’t her first time proving her skills as a harrier. In her first season as a sophomore, Schwab won the JV race at the county championships by 1:21. Her time of 20:05 would have been the 11th fastest time in the varsity race.
Katerina Talanova, Centennial, senior
Talanova placed at the county championship meet for the second time in her career. After placing ninth in 2018 but not running in the meet in 2019, Talanova finished fourth this spring to earn a first-team All-County selection for the first time. The senior paced the Eagles, who have four runners on the All-County team. with a time of 19:16. Talanova was also a second-team All-County pick in 2018.
Michelle Weaver, Centennial, senior
Weaver placed at the county championship race for the third straight season this spring. In 2018, Weaver finished 15th in the race, and in 2019, she was 13th — earning herself second-team All-County honors in both seasons. This year, she was the Eagles’ second fastest runner behind Talanova, and she finished seventh with a personal-record time of 19:25.
Jasmine Wilson, Howard, junior
Wilson is a first-team All-County selection for the second straight season. The junior, who was the third Howard runner to cross the line, finished eighth in 19:25. As a junior in 2019, Wilson placed seventh in the race with a time of 19:22. She is one of seven Lions on the All-County team.
Antonio Camacho-Bucks, Centennial, sophomore
Camacho-Bucks followed up his second-team All-County appearance as a freshman with a first-team pick this season. The sophomore finished in third at counties behind Ba and Hindle and is one of four runners from the county-champion Eagles to make the All-County team. His time of 15:31 was a personal best. As a freshman, Camacho-Bucks, who is the best 1,600-meter runner in the county with a time of 4:16, finished 10th at counties, fifth at regionals and sixth at states.
Jacob Cole, Centennial, senior
Cole is a first-team All-County runner for the third straight season. As a sophomore in 2018, Cole finished eighth at counties, and in 2019, the Centennial harrier won bronze behind Nanjappa and Ba. This season, Cole finished in sixth with a time of 15:51. He was the third Centennial runner to finish, crossing the line after Camacho-Bucks and Fernando Duraes for the county-champion Eagles.
Fernando Duraes, Centennial, senior
In his first season with the Eagles, Duraes proved himself as one of the best runners in the county and helped pace Centennial to the county crown. He opened the season by finishing second at the Eagles’ home meet against five other county teams. He then finished in fourth in each of the next two races before placing fifth at the county championship meet. Duraes crossed the line in 15:43 at counties, finishing between Camacho-Bucks and Cole.
Cameron Hindle, Long Reach, senior
Hindle broke Centennial’s course record at the county championship meet, finishing in 15:20 to break the previous record of 15:21 set by Nanjappa. He won silver at the competition behind Ba, who was five seconds faster. Hindle, whose best mile time is 4:20, is a cross country All-County selection for the second time in his career after garnering second-team honors as a sophomore. The senior took a big jump this season, breaking 16 minutes for the first time.
William Jones, Mt. Hebron, senior
Jones is an All-County selection for the first time in his career. After not competing in cross country as a junior, Jones, who is also one of the top middle-distance track runners in Howard County, finished seventh at the county championship meet with a time of 16:04. As a sophomore in 2019, Jones nearly placed, finishing 17th overall.
Kendall Phillips, Howard, senior
Phillips is a first-team All-County selection for the third straight season, joining Cole as the only boys runners to achieve the feat this year. Phillips finished in eighth at the county championship race with a time of 16:07. It was his third time placing at counties, as he finished in fourth in both 2018 and 2019.
Joseph Raudabaugh, Howard, junior
Raudabaugh took a big jump this season to be named a first-team All-County runner. After finishing in 26th at the county championship meet as a sophomore, Raudabaugh cut his three-mile time by more than a minute this spring. The junior ended the season with a fourth-place finish at counties, crossing the finish line in 15:36.
Second Team All-County
Amaya Cunningham, Centennial, junior
Elizabeth Holcombe, Howard, junior
Sara Kindbom, Howard, senior
Hayley Long, Howard, senior
Kiley Mann, Howard, freshman
Chloe McGeehan, River Hill, junior
Madelyn Mielke, Centennial, junior
Frankie Moore, Oakland Mills, freshman
Ethan Aidam, Oakland Mills, sophomore
Max Crockett, Marriotts Ridge, senior
Bryce Handa, River Hill, junior
Jacob Hauf, Mt. Hebron, junior
Luke LasCasas, Centennial, junior
Michael Wade, Marriotts Ridge, senior
Jakob Werdell, Howard, senior