The week before the PIAA cross country championships, St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy coach Jayson Jackson wasn’t with his team.
Jackson was in Hershey to be with his newborn daughter, Ophelia. Jackson’s daughter was born on Oct. 28 at Mount Nittany Medical Center — one month premature — and transferred to Hershey Medical Center due to complications, including some breathing episodes. The Lady Wolves kept him updated during the week as they prepared to defend their Class A state title, ending their messages to him with: “Running for Ophelia.”
On Thursday of that week, Jackson stopped by practice, where Lady Wolves runner Grace Cousins’ mother gave one of his daughters a temporary tattoo that read, “Ophelia Strong.”
“It really took me back and caught me off guard,” Jackson said. “Like a lot of things that have actually happened throughout the week have kind of knocked me off my feet.”
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Jackson was shocked to learn his daughter was going to be born premature. It started a “wild” stretch for Jackson as his runners won the District 6 championship one day later and then turned their focus to repeating as state champs with their coach and his daughter on their minds.
They ran for Ophelia at the PIAA Championships in Hershey on Nov. 5 and captured the Class A championship.
Sera Mazza paced the Lady Wolves to their first-place finish with a time of 19:17 to win the individual state title.
“I was hoping individually I could get top three because I was fourth last year,” Mazza said. “I really wasn’t expecting to get first. But it was really exciting.
“I think the thing that really pushed me was running for Ophelia and knowing that our whole team was running for the same reason.”
Jackson tells his team to run for something in its races.
Usually, the Lady Wolves runners think about their family, teammates and God.
At the state championships, they were thinking about Ophelia.
“It was for coach’s daughter, Ophelia,” Cousins said. “So it meant a lot to us winning.”
The Lady Wolves knew what their coach was going through in the week leading up to the PIAA race.
They kept him in their thoughts and prayers.
Cousins’ father came up with the idea for the tattoos, and Cousins designed them.
They wanted to run strong for Ophelia.
Jackson was blown away by the support.
“It can be a little nerve-wracking when you don’t know what’s going on and, as a parent, not being able to fix it, so that makes it pretty difficult,” Jackson said. “You feel pretty helpless.
“But I think that having the team that we have here and not just the team, but their parents and just the community of supporters, it’s made things a lot easier.”
Jackson felt relief when he was able to join his team to run the state course the day before the championships.
The next day, the Lady Wolves wore the “Ophelia Strong” tattoos as they ran to the championship, recording a team score of 103 and beating Elk Lake (103) on a tiebreaker based on the sixth-place finishers.
Jackson watched as Mazza moved up throughout the race before making her move late.
When Mazza crossed the finish line, she started crying.
Her teammates soon followed.
Julia Cusatis (18th, 20:24), Addie Ebbs (20th, 20:34), Maggie Urban (21st, 20:34) worked together on the course to record their times.
Cousins finished in 43rd (21:49), Kate Ott took 49th (22:07) and Lindsay Carmack was 54th (22:22) for the Lady Wolves.
After the race, Jackson gathered the team to give them the news.
They won the tiebreaker to repeat.
“We all started crying because that race meant a lot to us,” Ott said.
It wasn’t just about winning a state championship.
They ran for Ophelia.
They ran for their coach.
“It was very moving,” Jackson said of the support. “I think it brought both my wife and I to tears. ... It was a rough week. It’s still going on, but just to have that support from them from the love and the prayers, it really meant a lot to us.”