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Myers Park runner Mary Bonner Dalton finishes in top 5 at Foot Locker national meet

Myers Park senior Mary Bonner Dalton proved herself as one of the best runners in North Carolina history — again.

This time, her performance was even more emphatic.

Dalton finished fourth against state champions and elite runners from all over the nation at the 44th Foot Locker Cross Country Championships on Saturday at famed and hilly, double-loop 5K course in San Diego’s Balboa Park.

Her performance put a stamp on a season that saw her break the 17-minute barrier three times during a 5K cross-country race — a barrier only one North Carolina girl had broken once. Dalton also ran the fastest time in state championship history to win the NCHSAA 4A cross-country title Nov. 4 (16:54.0).

For Dalton, who has committed to Notre Dame, the finish was the highest for a Mecklenburg County girl at the Foot Locker nationals. Her fourth-place podium finish, in 17:28.1, surpassed the best finish that she set last year with a 12th place effort. It was also her second straight All-American honor, making her only the fourth North Carolina girl in 44 years to earn All-American twice and the first from Mecklenburg County.

“I feel very honored to hear that,” Dalton said after being told about the history-making performance. “Nothing I would have expected my freshman year. ... (I’m) thankful for all the opportunities I’ve had ... and I’m very grateful to have made history.”

In the boys’ race, Ardrey Kell senior Raghav Gopalakrishnan, a University of Pennsylvania commit and the NCHSAA 4A runner-up, finished 22nd overall in 15:48.5. He became only the third Mecklenburg County boy to compete at Foot Locker nationals. Stephen Haas (North Mecklenburg, 1999) and Ben Huffman (Providence Day, 2013) were the previous two.

Coming into the race, Gopalakrishnan had established himself as one of the best distance runners in Mecklenburg County history, running 15:03.4 over the 5K McAlpine Park cross-country course at the Foot Locker South Regional on Nov. 25 to qualify for nationals. It was the third-best time in county history at McAlpine. His 22nd-place finish at nationals equaled the second-best finish at nationals for a Mecklenburg County boy.

Hillsborough Orange senior Gabriel Schmid, the two-time NCHSAA 3A champion, finished 16th in 15:41.6 on Saturday to round out the other North Carolina qualifiers. Drew Griffin, a junior from Butler (PA) High and the Pennsylvania 3A champion, pulled away in the last half mile to beat Notre Dame commit Ryan Pajak of Ringgold (PA) High, and the Pennsylvania 2A champion, who ran 15:12.1.

The top 40 boys and top 40 girls qualified for the national championships (10 boys and 10 girls from each of four regionals throughout the nation), which consisted of state champions and elite runners from all over the nation.

San Diego’s Balboa Park course has been used every year in the meet’s existence, except seven times (1981-1982, and 1997-2001), and has several winding turns and a gradual and long uphill that must be run twice, including in the last half mile.

That’s why Dalton’s same patient strategy, she used last year, paid off.

After finishing sixth two weeks ago at the Foot Locker South Regional to earn a spot at nationals with the fastest 5K girls’ time in Mecklenburg County history (16:53.8), which was also the deepest girls’ race in Foot Locker South history, Dalton made her way up gradually throughout Saturday’s race.

She was 10th at the mile, ninth at the halfway point (1.5 miles), sixth at the 2-mile mark, and fifth with a little more than a half-mile to go, before moving into fourth and finishing just ahead of future Notre Dame teammate Addison Knoblauch (Homestead High, Fort Wayne, IN), who ran 17:43.0.

Dalton credited Myers Park coach Lamont Hayes for getting her to this point.

“Coach Hayes means a lot to me,” Dalton said. “He has put in so much time and effort to help me be the runner I am today; through training, talking to me. ... I couldn’t’ be here without him. I really appreciate what he’s done.”

Sophomore Elizabeth Leachman, the Texas 5A state champion from Boeme (TX) Champion High, won in 16:50.7. Allie Zealand, a home-schooler from Lynchburg, VA, who has committed to Liberty, was runner-up in 17:04.5, followed by Michigan Division I state champion and Michigan State commit, Rachel Forsyth (Ann Arbor Pioneer High), in 17:08.3.

Dalton, a four-time state champion in track in the 3,200 meters (2022 and 2023 indoors, and 2021 and 2022 outdoors), has thrived previously on the national level. She won the 2022 Adidas Indoor Track National title over 5,000 meters and finished runner-up at Nike Outdoor Nationals in the 3,200 meters, while also finishing third in the 5,000 meters at the 2023 New Balance Indoor Nationals and fourth in the 2-mile at the 2023 New Balance Outdoor Nationals, while anchoring the winning Distance Medley Relay at the 2023 Adidas Outdoor Nationals.

Her strong finish Saturday gave her confidence heading into her last high school indoor and outdoor track seasons, with her eyes on breaking the 10-minute barrier in the 3,200 meters — something only three other North Carolina girls have accomplished.

But Dalton is used to breaking barriers and making history.