Florida State cross country: Former Chiles athletes leading Seminoles to nationals in Oklahoma

Ehsan Kassim
Tallahassee Democrat

Alyson Churchill and Caitlin Wilkey have pushed and competed with each other since their junior and senior seasons at Chiles High School.

Churchill was the 2016 Florida HS 3A XC individual state champion, while Wilkey was an FHSAA 3A state champ in cross country in 2017 and 2018.

Now, the duo is pushing each other as they continue to race for their hometown college, Florida State.

"Allison's always been such a great competitor," Wilkey said. "She's just really pulled me to be the best version of myself running and outside of running. She's a great teammate, she's a great leader and she's an amazing runner."

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Both Churchill and Wilkey are expected to be runners who will score for the Seminoles at the NCAA DI Cross Country Championships on Saturday at Greiner Family OSU Cross Country Course in Stillwater, Okla.

The women's race is at 10:20 a.m., while the men's race is at 11:10 a.m.

Churchill and Wilkey, along with Emmy Van den Berg, Agnes McTighe and Rebecca Bergnes, are the expected runners to score for FSU, with a total of seven athletes running. 

"It was a dream to run for the home team," Wilkey said. "It is an incredible program. I look to other places, but honestly, this place had the best chemistry and the most room for growth. The program is just incredible and just a tight-knit group of girls and it's the only place I saw myself at.

"It's excellent to be around all these trails. It's impossible to find somewhere else that has better trails and a better running community than Tallahassee. And it's just great to have support from family and high school friends."

Fearghal Curtin is the lone member of the men's team competing. 

Churchill helped the Seminoles finish 15th at the 2020 NCAA XC Championships with a time of 21:43.3, while Wilkey was an alternate on the team.

Both are going to try and help No. 26 this weekend finish with a team goal of a top-20 finish.

The USTFCCCA national poll released on Tuesday, ranked t the women ranking 26th.

"(As a team) we haven't discussed it in depth, but we're going in ranked 26th I think it's a fair enough goal, we'll say, top 20 or better," Wilkey said. "I think we are really capable of doing better than that were ranked."

NCAA Nationals

The FSU women finished second at the NCAA South Region Championships with a total of 88 points. 

A total of seven runners for the Seminoles will be allowed to run, with the top five scorings. 

Both Churchill and Wilkey are expected to be scoring runners for FSU. Churchill (19.59.70) finished 11th at the South Region Championships, while Wilkey (20:33.50) finished 28th.

Van den Berg led the way, finishing in sixth place (19:47.70), while McTighe (14th, 20:02.80) and Bergnes (28th, 20:37.00) are expected to be the other scoring runners for the Seminoles.

The 2020 race was also run at the Stillwater course, one both runners and long distance coach Baylee Mires said is a tough course.

"I'm hoping to have a couple of all-American honors (top 40)," Mires said. "So, we're looking at Vanderburgh, Alison Churchill and Agnes Mackay, if they could be all-Americans. That's a dream day. But yeah, the top 20 would definitely be the goal. I would hope that they're hungry for more than that. So we just got to race smart."

Curtin was awarded a spot in the men’s 10k after finishing in sixth place at regionals with a time of 29:30.00.

He also qualified in 2021 while representing Charleston Southern.

Florida State cross country runner Caitlin Wilkey (middle)

Churchill comeback

Churchill said she was home-schooled for her freshman and sophomore years. She ran for Lincoln High during her freshman season, winning the 2016 Florida HS 3A XC Individual State Champion in 17:55.

She took her sophomore season off due to injuries and recovery before transferring to Chiles, where she joined forces with Wilkey.

"My junior year when we ran there we had a really good team," Churchill said. "We went to a big postseason (meet) in the nationals. That's a really cool experience."

Mike Phillips, who was the Timberwolves’ coach at the time, was impressed by Churchill's work ethic

"It was just kind of almost like starting over again in terms of getting back into shape and getting her mindset back into where it needs to be for training and racing," Phillips said. "She was probably a little gun-shy just from injuries that she had. But she's always one of those people that just put her head down and just barreled ahead.

"She just wants to train as hard and as much as she can. So getting her to do the work was never the issue was just sometimes kind of reeling her in, to be patient. And to trust the process and build back up slowly since she had been out for so long."

The work with her panned out. She helped Chiles bring home the 2018 FHSAA 3A XC team title before finishing as the runner-up in 4A in 2019.

Churchill was the 2017 Track & Field 3A individual runner-up in both the 3200 meters and 1600 meters (4:57).

"She was obviously a huge contributor for us and in both cross country and in track (and field)," Phillips said. ..

"She was a great teammate, a great worker and just somebody that you always knew was going to work as hard as she possibly could to get better. That's all she ever wanted to do, just keep getting better."

Wilkey's consistency

Wilkey was the All-Big Bend Runner of the Year in 2019, as she finished third in the 4A FHSAA Cross Country State Championships.

She was a four-time All-Big Bend first-team member in cross country.

Wilkey won five races her senior season, while also adding a district title.

"Caitlin, I coached from freshman year to when she graduated," Phillips said. "If you look on Milesplit and you look at her times, both in cross country and track, she was probably the most consistent runner I've ever had just in getting better.

"Every single year she had a drop in times in both cross country and track and almost from meet to meet in every event that she did."

Different paths to FSU

Wilkey said running at FSU and for her hometown was always a goal for herself. She said she also considered Georgia Tech, but Tallahassee was always where her heart was.

For Churchill, the end goal wasn't always running with the Seminoles. 

"I did not always want to come to FSU," she said. "But because I grew up here, coming to watch FSU soccer games when I was little and I always thought FSU is cool, but I didn't picture myself coming here.

"But then as I got closer I just ended up really liking the idea of staying close to home. Then I came and did a visit here, I loved the team and coach (Kelly) Phillips."

Meet information

What: NCAA DI Cross Country Championships

When: Saturday, Women's 6000m, 10:20 a.m.; Men's 10000m, 11:10 a.m.

Where: Greiner Family OSU Cross Country Course | Stillwater, OK

Reach Ehsan Kassim at ekassim@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Ehsan_Kassim. You can also follow our coverage on Facebook (NoleSports) and Instagram (tlhnolesports).

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