When the Lake Norman Charter girls' cross country team won the N.C. High School Athletic Association's 1A championship, two juniors led the way.
Sarah Hardin and Stephanie Zaino capped off a successful season by finishing second and fifth, respectively, at the Nov. 5 state meet to help bring the Huntersville school its first state title.
"All of our hard work paid off," said Hardin. "We wanted a state championship for a really long time, so I guess our dreams came true."
Zaino agreed, saying that coach Craig Zamiara had the team prepared with a rigorous regimen throughout the year. She added that she and her teammates relied on each other to win their championship.
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"We were all pushing each other and helping each other reach the top," said Zaino.
Hardin admits that she's a "social runner" who undertook the sport to spend time with friends, not necessarily because she enjoys it.
"At times, that kills me," said Zamiara. "She's so good, and if she really throws herself into it, I think she could be even better than she is."
Despite doing it for fun, Hardin has had plenty of success on the cross country course. She's been the team's top runner the last two years, since transferring from Hopewell. Hardin has been named all-state the past two seasons.
Zamiara said the 17-year-old goes into a race without expectations, which can be a plus, but her competitive nature kicks in when the start gun goes off.
That was obvious at the state meet. For most of the 5K race, Hardin was in third place behind eventual state champ, Mount Airy's Kirsten Parries, and Bishop McGuinness' Carly Kreber, but the junior made a late push to overtake Kreber down the stretch to finish as state runner-up with a time of 19:44.31.
Hardin explained that not wanting to settle for third place after putting in so much work made her use everything she had left in her to make the late pass.
"I think I just got angry with myself and wanted to push through it," she said.
Zaino, who was also named all-state this year, is a dedicated runner who says she enjoys constantly pushing herself to improve.
Zamiara says the competitive junior can go a little overboard at times.
"I've had to tell her to slow down on an easy day," he said. "She always goes out busting it out. She likes to run hard and fast."
Zaino was proud of her 20:11:36 time at the state meet, but she admits that she'll use that as motivation to get faster.
"I worked really hard, and I finally saw what I can possibly do," the 16-year-old said.
After racing against a tough field all season, having to go against strong 3A and 4A teams, Zamiara liked his team's chances going into the state meet, he said. After his girls team lost last year's state title by two points seeing them win the state title was a great feeling, he said.
"It was definitely the best moment of my coaching career so far," said Zamiara.
In addition to Hardin and Zaino, junior Danielle Clark, who finished 17th in the race, and sophomores Lauren Swift and Holly Miller scored for the Knights. Swift was 20th, while Miller finished 36th.
Lake Norman Charter's boys also fared well at the state meet, finishing second overall behind N.C. School of Math and Science.
The boys were led by Michael Westbay's sixth-place finish. Chris Hack (11th), Matt Panza (21st), Bryan Hooker (23rd) and Sean Kenney (26th) also had strong performances.
The Knights raced without No. 2 runner Jordan Wallace, who was out with an injury.
Hardin and Zaine hope their team can improve upon their success next year and that it ushers the way for other Lake Norman Charter teams to win state championships of their own.
"I hope it opens a floodgate," said Hardin.