CARROLLTON -- Out of breath, legs aching, head spinning, Ericka Taylor couldn't find a smile to celebrate.
It didn't matter. She had already found her heart.
Right there in the final 150 meters of the GHSA Class AAA state cross country meet, that's where Taylor discovered just how good she is -- that's where she found out she was the best.
"It hasn't sunk in yet,'' said Taylor, the 16-year-old sophomore who became the first girl from Westover High School to win a Class AAA state cross-country title since 1992 and only the second in the school's history on Saturday afternoon.
She didn't just win it, she won it with a finish for the ages, holding off Columbus' Kristina Delpesche, who caught Taylor with about 150 meters left only to watch the Westover sophomore find a final kick that she didn't even know she had in her.
"I couldn't smile when I won,'' Taylor said. "When I crossed the finish line it felt good, but I couldn't smile. I couldn't walk. My legs were weak. I couldn't stand up, and I couldn't breathe.''
One of the race officials came over and helped carry Taylor off the course. Taylor was spent, exhausted -- numb and in pain. That last thing she felt was Delpeshe storming up to catch her.
"She was right behind me,'' Taylor said. "I could feel her. But I didn't know she was that close until she caught me. I just thought, 'I can't give up at the end. I can't give up, I have to go faster.' I don't know where it came from. I guess I just wanted to win so bad, really, really bad.''
Taylor won the hill-laden 5K race in 19:25, just beating Delpeshe, who came home in 19:26.
"She is such a competitor,'' said Westover coach Harley Calhoun, who was thrilled to see Taylor win the individual title. "It's something innate inside her. She just gives it her all every time she runs. She couldn't even stand up after the race, and had trouble breathing. She feels a responsibility to the team. She doesn't want to let anybody down.
"It's all about her character. She is very involved with her church. She comes from a good family and her parents taught her good values and character. She's such a special girl. She just feels like she has to give it everything she's got -- that's what makes her special.''
Taylor never thought about winning the state title until she ran the best time in Westover history last month in the Westover Relays, where she finished the race in 18:59. She said that race gave her confidence to win the state title.
Still, in the cool air at a Carrollton course that has some challenging hills, Taylor wasn't sure it would be her day. She started the race pacing herself, and was in seventh at the half-mile mark. She cleared the first hill and started to worry if she would have enough left to finish the race, then turned doubt into courage and took the lead at the one mile mark. When she hit the second hill -- one that's larger than the first -- she never looked back.
"After I ran up the first hill, I was feeling tired,'' Taylor said. "And when I got to the mile marker I was wondering if I would run out of energy. After the second hill, I thought I wasn't going to make it. But I just pushed myself. I said I would win it that day at the Westover Relays, and I just kept pushing. The last (100 meters) I couldn't feel my legs.''
They will be talking about this race at Westover for a while.
"She has so much heart,'' Westover principal William Chunn said. "She is a special athlete, really special.''
Both Westover cross country teams celebrated Taylor's victory. The Westover girls finished 16th in the state and the boys were 19th, but everyone was ecstatic to see the kid who loves doughnuts almost as much as running win the title.
"So many people have said they want to buy her doughnuts for winning, she'll probably need to open her own shop,'' Calhoun said.
"We're all excited. This is a special day. It's one of the hardest things to do, to win a state cross country title. To be up here against the runners from Atlanta and Fulton County where they run on this terrain. For her to come up here from running in the Southwest Georgia flat lands and to beat them really says something for her.''
Calhoun said he never doubted Taylor.
"She ran the race the way it should be run,'' he said. "She knew she could push the pace. Ericka absorbs the knowledge it takes to run. She learns from her mistakes, and never makes the same mistake twice. She ran the race she had to run to win it, and she had that great kick at the end. It came down to a kicker's race, and she had the kick.''
And now she has the title.
"Yeah, that's cool,'' Taylor said, finally finding a smile. "I feel like I can come back next year and win it again.''
THE REST OF THE BEST:
Area runners who finished well at state include Westover's Greg Thorne, who was 55th (18:01) and Cole Koster, who was 58th (18:03), and Josh Mason, who was 96th (18:39).
Baconton's Bryton Wenzel ran the best boys time from the area schools in Southwest Georgia, finishing 23rd in the Class A meet in 17:35. Lee County's Jacob Kennedy was 67th in the Class AAAA meet in 17:49. Bainbridge's Joseph Ausgood was 154th in 19:02, and Bainbridge's Cole Farrington was 164th in 19:13.
Pelham's Collen Edwards (19:11) was 82nd, Ruben Martinez (19:55) was 109th and Guthrie Edwards (20:06) was 113th in the Class A meet. Baconton's Cody Carden (20:41) was 134th and Carn Smith (21:19) finished 148th.
Monroe's Davone Anduze finished 93rd in the girls Class AAA meet in 22:59, and Westover had strong performances from Tionnah Campbell (23:10) was 102nd. Elizabeth Golinski (23:29) was 107th and Elizabeth Brown (24:12) was 126th.
Bainbridge's Paige Braswell (21:52) was 89th in the Class AAA meet, and Lee County's Lane Ellington (22:26) was 118th. Lee's Mariah Davis (23:01) was 143rd.