A year ago, Mia Cochran was prevented from running at Foot Locker Nationals because of a balky right hip.
On Thursday, the junior distance ace was informed that she will not have the opportunity to defend her WPIAL and PIAA Class AAA championships because she was exposed to COVID-19 at Moon Area High School, with school officials telling her to self-quarantine for 14 days per CDC guidelines.
"I was asked to go to the auditorium and I did not know why," Cochran said of having been pulled out of lunch today by school officials. "When I asked why I was there, they said contact tracing. I immediately started crying. I knew that it meant I would have to self-quarantine for 14 days, and I have the two biggest meets of my season over that time period."
Moon Area athletic director Ron Ledbetter said the school district has followed coronavirus protocols in Cochran's situation and those of other students.
"We follow what the CDC guidelines say," Ledbetter said. "If you are within 6 feet of somebody for 15 minutes or more that has tested positive, then you have to quarantine for 14 days.
"We called the Allegheny County Health Department hotline for schools, spoke to two different people there and they both verified that what we did was the right way."
According to Moon Area officials, Cochran was exposed to COVID-19 in class Tuesday due to her proximity to a fellow student who tested positive. A posting on the district's Website today stated all middle and high school students will move to virtual learning starting Friday (October 30) after another high school student tested positive.
All Moon Area students started the school year in a virtual setting before getting the option to transition to a hybrid model at the beginning of October. With a full schedule of AP and honors classes, Cochran elected to switch to in-person learning for four days a week. Cochran and her mother, Alecia Evans, both expressed displeasure with the social distancing in classrooms once students returned.
"I'm very upset with the school right now," Cochran said. "They did not space everyone 6 feet apart to keep everyone safe. They put so many of us together without social distancing. If I would have been placed 6 feet apart, I would not be in this situation. Everyone is wearing masks!
"Why do I have to suffer because of their actions? I never would have gone back if I knew I was at risk of contact tracing and not being able to compete. I'm completely healthy with no symptoms. ... This is what I've been training for since February. I'm truly devastated."
In her first season back from last year's hip injury, Cochran is undefeated, opening with a lifetime XC best of 17:39.38 to win Red, White & Blue in a much-anticipated race with Shady Side Academy and Class AA track standout Melissa Riggins. A week later, her 18:16 performance was the best by 19 seconds in the PIAA Foundation Invitational, leading just a trio of runners under 19 minutes in the wave-format meet.
"She was having an outstanding year," Moon Area coach Tim Hrivnak said. "She's just a competitor. Even in some of the section meets ... where she didn't need to post a huge time to win a meet, she would always go for it anyways. It's just the way that she's built.
"She's been feeling good, running well. She has just really bought into the process of defending this title. And it's just very upsetting that she is not going to have this chance. Physically, she was on track to go out and again repeat at White Oak (Park). Like you would expect, she was just distraught, not believing that we got so close and then just being a victim of some contact tracing. She really wasn't able to stop crying. It's just an extremely emotional day and night for her."
Cochran's mother has been among those lobbying for another solution to the contact tracing that included her daughter and, according to Ledbetter, "other (Moon) athletes who are missing playoff games in other sports as well."
Evans emailed Mark Byers of the PIAA with details of her daughter's situation. While the state organization's chief operating officer acknowledged being "certainly sympathetic to the situation," he stated in his email reply that the PIAA would not "act contrary to the advice ... of our medical advisors or act contrary to Moon's adherence to their School Board's adopted Health and Safety Plan."
A year ago, Cochran had no equal in the postseason, starting it with a victory by 45 seconds at the WPIAL meet. In Hershey, she was the lone runner in the 17s, winning AAA by 18 seconds.
Weeks later, she finished tenth at the Foot Locker Northeast Regional in New York City, earning a starting spot amongst the nation's top 40 girl distance runners. However, an ailing hip that caused her discomfort throughout the year became worse, forcing her to pull out of the San Diego race.
"How much can one person take, right?," Hrivnak said when referencing last year's season-ending decision and today's news. "As I've gotten to know Mia through the years, just her businesslike approach to things, after last year, she came into this year more determined than ever to stay healthy and work on getting back to where she finished last year.
"Of course, earlier in the year, we learned that there weren't going to be regional or nationals so the focus turned to the state again and of course the WPIAL, the ultimate goal there of repeating in both meets. The silver lining I guess and the blessing to the whole thing is that she's only a junior. I'll expect that as we enter into her senior season next year she will be a very determined force to be reckoned with. I look at this and I expect her intensity to be magnified as she enters into her senior year with still yet a lot to prove."
This year's WPIAL AAA races were scheduled for today due to meet modifications put in place because of the global pandemic. However, the big school events were pushed back a day Wednesday because of heavy rain that was headed for Pennsylvania. If not for the delay, Cochran likely would have been warming up for her first postseason race of 2020 at about the same time she was notified by school officials of a classmate's positive COVID test.
UPDATE (Friday, Oct. 30, 11:50 AM):