MICDS Ray and Lohr

MICDS senior Julia Ray and her coach Jim Lohr enjoy the moment after she won the Class 4 state championship. (Photo provided)

MICDS senior Julia Ray ended her cross country career the way she began it – as a state champion.

Ray won the Class 4 state girls cross country state title with a time of 18 minutes, 14.7 seconds at Gans Creek Cross Country Complex in Columbia.

It was a sweet moment for Ray, who will continue to run in college at the University of Tennessee in both cross country as well as in track and field.

"It is incredibly special to win state as a senior," said Ray, who was the Gatorade Missouri Girls Cross Country Player of Year last season. "Being able to go out of your last high school cross country season with that big of an achievement is very rewarding, exciting, and it makes you feel proud of yourself and how you have progressed over high school to get to that moment."

Coach Jim Lohr is among those happy to see Ray close her high school cross country career as a state champ.

"This was exactly the way she wanted to go out," Lohr said. "We had talked about it even after last season when she finished fourth. We talked about winning it again her senior year. She had a solid season of training and was super focused on winning again. I honestly thought she would win every year but unfortunately it did not work out that way."

Ray captured the Class 3 state championship as a freshman with a time of 18:13.80.

"Winning state as a freshman felt so rewarding and exciting for me," Ray said. "For that first high school season, I had goals but no real huge expectations for myself, and winning that state title the first year really changed my perspective and helped me believe that I can achieve bigger things than I thought. It really kickstarted my motivation to achieve bigger things for the rest of my high school career."

In between those two state championships, Ray finished fourth at state for the past two years.

"That definitely helped me stay motivated," Ray said. "After the first state win as a freshman, I had a goal to win state again. Placing fourth two times really helped me build up more fire within myself to get another state title as a senior and really push myself."

Lohr liked how Ray prepared herself for this season. She put in the work and time to give herself the best chance of succeeding at state.

"She was very focused. She is very mature when it comes to practice and training but seemed even more focused this season because she knew it was her last high school cross country season," Lohr said. "She was one of our captains and she wanted to see our team qualify for state again. We have only had individual qualifiers for the past two seasons. Our team qualifying for state was important to her. She was a great leader for us."

At the state meet, Ray led the pack for the entire race. Her goal in the race was to get out fast. She wanted to create a gap at about the 1-kilomter mark. After reaching that distance, Ray planned to continue pushing to create a bigger gap over the rest of the field.

Lohr liked her plan.

"She's a savvy competitor," Lohr said.

Her plan worked just she and Lohr imagined.

"As I was crossing the finish line, I wasn't thinking of much other than staying focused on finishing the race, but when I crossed the finish line I felt just so happy and proud of myself for what I had just achieved and it felt like everything I had been working for turned into a reality," Ray said. "It was a very happy moment for me, but bittersweet because I knew it was my last cross country race with my team."

Lohr got to take it all in. He wanted to see her cross the finish line.

"I was so happy for Julia. She has worked so hard and had to fight off some health issues but managed to get herself back to the confident racer she had always been," Lohr said. "I told her before the race in our team meeting that I was going to watch her last race. I had never seen her cross this finish line because I was always out on the course checking on our other girls in the race. This year I watched her cross the finish line. I wanted to see her last race all the way to the end."

While her time was a personal best or broke her own school record, Ray was pleased with the outcome.

"I was happy with my time. It was one of my best times," said Ray, who set her personal record and school record last year with a time of 17:52 in a 5K run. "(I'm) a little disappointed to not have gotten a PR, but extremely happy with how everything ended this season."

Her time in cross country if over but she has track to compete in come spring. She enjoyed running for Lohr.

"Coach Lohr has helped me tremendously. I've known coach Lohr since I was 4 years old because he was my lower school PE teacher," Ray said. "He always saw the potential in me and consistently told me over the years how excited he was for me to join the program, which made me feel motivated and excited to join it as well. He's been an outstanding coach and mentor for me and his support has really helped me stay motivated and believe in myself over all the years. He has also given me and my team opportunities to run at races outside of Missouri and compete with amazing athletes and I will always be grateful for those fun opportunities."

Lohr enjoyed coaching Ray.

"Julia has been such a pleasure to coach. She is a very intense practice athlete on interval days, and she takes each rep very seriously," Lohr said. "She is constantly working out pace and calculations as she debriefs after the workouts. She thinks on a higher level than most when it comes to her running. I think what makes Julia so special as an athlete is that she is willing to do the work required to compete at the highest level. She is fiercely competitive in races and practice and pushes herself to some deep places in workouts."

Ray recently signed a letter of intent to run at Tennessee. She is excited about becoming at Volunteer.

"I began looking into Tennessee toward the end of this past summer, right before senior year started. I had started becoming interested after my dad and a close friend of mine mentioned that I should look into them," Ray said. "Very quickly I began to love Tennessee and what the coaches' goals were for the program as well as the overall spirit of the team and school as a whole. I am incredibly excited for the next step in going to college and running at the collegiate level.

"It has been one of my biggest goals to run Division 1 ever since I was a little kid. I can't wait to join the talented team and coaching staff that are at Tennessee as well as continue running and see how I progress each year."

Lohr believes she will do well competing at Tennessee.

"I think Julia will do great at Tennessee. She will be able to train with a highly talented group, which will make her much better," Lohr said. "She will run a championship schedule in the SEC and will have every opportunity to be great. I am looking forward to seeing her improve in her collegiate career."

Going to college means she'll be leaving MICDS. Her loss is a big one for Lohr.

"We will miss Julia greatly," Lohr said. "She will always be in our thoughts, and we will refer to her all the time in stories about races and practices. She will be who we compare other runners to in the future. She is a once-in-a-program-type athlete and I feel so lucky to have been a part of her career here at MICDS. It has been a fun four years. I am glad she was able to finish her cross-country career here with another championship."