Earlier this fall, Vanessa Fernandez nearly reached her breaking point.

She had just experienced a disheartening workout. Earlier in the day, she ran a mile in 6:18 during athletic period, but wasn’t able to replicate that time in a later workout on Center Point’s track. This was following a disappointing performance during the Comfort Billy Nabours Invite, where she posted a 14:02.7 time in the 2-mile race.

But mostly, Fernandez was tired, tired of being Center Point’s only cross country runner, tired of running alone every day with no one to push her. All those factors resulted in Fernandez having what her coach, Shanna Crawley, described as a meltdown.

That was the bad news from that day. The good news: That breakdown led to a heart-to-heart between runner and coach that changed the complexion of Fernandez’s season.

“I need someone to push me,” Fernandez told her coach.

“No, you need you to push you,” Crawley replied. “You have to be your own motivator.”

Fernandez listened to her coach’s exhortation. After that conversation, she began thriving at meets. She posted her best time (13:16) to finish sixth at the District 27-2A meet on Oct. 14. At the Region IV meet in Corpus Christi on Oct. 28, she competed against runners from the best cross country programs (Harper, Mason, Wallis Brazos and San Saba) in the state and didn’t flinch, finishing No. 21 (13:22) to become the first Center Point girl since 2009 to qualify for the state meet. She hopes to post a sub-13:00 time when she races Saturday at Old Settler Park in Round Rock.

“This season will teach me a life lesson of never giving up in life,” Fernandez said. “It doesn’t matter if you have a team or not, you can do it all by yourself. I did.”

She entered this season expecting to be the Pirates’ lone cross country runner, but didn’t realize how psychologically draining it would be to run alone every day. At most other schools, cross country runners encourage each other through taxing workouts. Fernandez didn’t have that luxury.

“It was a little frustrating,” Fernandez said. “I just had to come in with a positive attitude and work hard at what I wanted to do, which was to go to state.”

She toiled to bring that goal to fruition. When she wasn’t running up steep hills to strengthen her conditioning, she was training with Camp Gladiator.

She may have been running by herself, but she still had a strong support system. Crawley acted like a second mother. Crawley admitted she was hard on her at times this season, but only because she wanted Fernandez to reach her potential. Fernandez also received a helping hand from one of Center Point’s substitute teachers, Nabours, who spent 19 seasons coaching Comfort’s cross country team before retiring in 2018. Crawley claimed she pestered Nabours with questions; Nabours never hesitated to give advice. Fernandez knew Nabours had a solid track record of sending runners to state when he coached at Comfort, so she always listened to his suggestions.

“I tease and tell him he’s my assistant coach,” Crawley said. “She jumped on the bandwagon and listened. She believed in what I was doing and believed in what he told me.”

Still, Fernandez was nervous when she crossed the finish line in Corpus Christi. While all the runners from the top 3 teams at regionals advance to the state meet, only the top 10 runners from the other 19 schools qualify. Fernandez wasn’t sure if she made the cut, afraid she might have just run her final high school race.

So, when she finally discovered she had accomplished her season goal, she began to tear up. Her coach later joked she was the loudest person in the stadium.

She plans to continue running at Jacksonville College. At the moment, however, she’s ready to run the final race of her high career on Saturday.

“Her hard work and determination is inspiring,” Crawley said. “She’s become more of a daughter to me. We’ve built a special relationship. It’s going to be hard to see her graduate.

“She has a heart as big as Texas.”

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