In final cross country race, Simon triplets look to restore Mountain Lions as program they grew up watching

Mountain Ridge seniors, from left, Emily, Leslie and Lizzie Simon pose for a photograph on Wednesday, Oct. 17 at Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

There is a shortcut to the age-old dilemma of fostering team unity.

Make sure half the varsity team is composed of triplets. That has been an advantage for the Mountain Ridge girls cross country squad since 2015.

Since then, Emily and Lizzie Simon have usually been among the top 30 runners in Division one — and Leslie Simon has not been far behind.

“For a lot of teams, the team concept if difficult. A lot of people focus, intrinsically, and they’re self oriented. We were a team since birth,” Emily Simon said.

Mountain Ridge takes this familiarity to the next level. Fellow senior runners Taylor Mollenhour and Celicia Sermeno can run in a pack with the Simons and have been on the varsity since their sophomore year.

The triplets and their teammates are approaching their final race together — the Nov. 10 Division I state championships at Cave Creek Golf Course in Phoenix. And most of the sisters’ goals are team-oriented.

The Mountain Ridge girls finished ninth in 2015, seventh in 2016 and ninth in 2017. In their final race together, the Simons want to push the Mountain Lions back to the heights they remember from their youth.

Shawn Simon was an assistant coach on the 1999 girls 5A championship team — to date the only Mountain Ridge cross country team to bring home a state title. Soon after he had company along the course.

“Emily and I plan on continuing running but for Leslie that’s probably going to be her last time racing with us, For us to finish strong would mean a lot,” Lizzie Simon said. “I guess you could say our journey started her nearly 20 years ago because our dad used to coach here. As babies he’d be holding us and feeding us as he was coaching. The one state title the girls have, he coached that. Us finishing well would be like everything coming full circle.”

Growing up, running was only one of many activities for the triplets. They dabbled in soccer and other sports and focused on Taekwondo, where all three earned second-degree black belts.

Cross country indulges their competitive easier while also allowing the seniors to help each other out.

“We’ve always been insanely competitive since we were little. When we did soccer, we competed, and when we did Taekwondo we competed. But with running we’re always trying to encourage each other — but at the same time we’re always trying to beat each other,” Leslie Simon said. “At the end of the day, we try not to let that into our lives at home.”

Taller with brunette hair, Leslie is the most distinct of the triplets. She also brings the most unique approach to distance running.

She was the last to run competitively and will be the first Simon to move on.From an early age, Leslie honed her artistic talents. She and Emily also focused on club soccer before returning to their roots.

“Ultimately, I returned to running, which was the first athletic thing I did as a kid. Our father entered us in a race. It was an option between 800 meters (two laps) or a mile (four laps) and Lizzie and Leslie decided to do two laps. I decided I was going to do the mile because I was a stubborn kid,” Emily Simon said.

Emily said a lot of stuff came naturally in her freshman season. Emily and Lizzie debuted in the top 30 of Division 1, placing 28th and 29th respectively.

As sophomores in 2016 Emily Simon placed 26th and Lizzie 29th. Leslie was getting up to speed on cross country and finished 101st.

Lizzie said her breakthrough occurred in her sophomore year at the Woodbridge Cross Country Classic in Irvine, Calif. She took third place in the race the Mountain Lions entered.

“That was my first time being the No. 1 girl on the team and my first time going sub-6 minute pace average,” Lizzie Simon said.

Mollenhour shot up to seventh in Division I in her junior year. Emily Simon was 39th while Leslie Simon placed a career-best 47th. Lizzie fell to 68th.

Entering the state race this season, Emily’s time is ranked 20th in Division I, Lizzie is 26th and Leslie is 50th.

Mollenhour is 39th in an injury-riddled fall. Sermeno posted a time just behind Leslie Simon.

The seniors are trying to set up the underclassmen for future success.

“One of our big goals from freshman year up was when we got to be upperclassmen, we wanted to be like the seniors who were their for us as freshman,” Lizzie Simon said. “For state this year, our goal since freshman year has been to get a podium spot. There’s definitely some stiff competition.”

Emily Simon said the triplets feed off one another naturally.Each sister brings different skill sets to the team.

“I prefer to run mid-distance. I like doing the 800 and the mile in track. Lizzie prefers long distance, the longer the mileage the better. Emily is very versatile. She does the mile, the two mile and steeplechase is her favorite event,” Leslie Simon said.

Lizzie Simon said she likes hills and more distance.

“I really try to push the middle mile because I know I don’t have the closing speed that a lot of other people have, and that the girls on my team have,” Lizzie Simon said.

On the flip side, Emily has that finishing kick

“I like to go out slower than them. Most of the time when you’re watching the video, you say, ‘Oh, here’s Emily?’ Then you see me in the back 10 of the group. After the first 800 when at lot of people are setting out to the pace, they realize they’ve gone out too fast. For me it’s all about the hunt and catching people,” Emily Simon said.

Emily and Lizzie plan to continue their cross country and track careers at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott.

Lizzie said she plans to study forensic biology while Emily is interested in forensic psychology.

Leslie Simon said she has always been very interested in the arts. That will her focal point in college at ASU, with Leslie saying she plans to major in theater or visual arts.

Before that, though, she will have a series of “last” competitive races in her senior year.

“It’s sort of the accumulation of four years of hard work. It would mean a lot to run a PR for that course and place in the top 30 or 40. To finish with a big bang would be great,” Leslie Simon said.

A big finish for this Mountain Ridge girls cross country group and its triplets also would be a heck of a birthday present.

“State is actually on our birthday. So that would be a really special 18th,” Emily Simon said.

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