The Ocean City High School boys and girls cross country teams were flying high both literally and figuratively on Friday.
A magnanimous gesture by Delta Airlines made it possible for the Red Raiders to compete in the Disney Cross-Country Classic in Orlando. The boys varsity team wound up winning its race while the girls varsity placed second in Walt Disney World.
A day earlier, the teams doubted if they would even get to Florida, let alone have the opportunity to compete.
"It definitely wasn't looking good for us to get there at one point," Ocean City senior runner Max Kelly said from the Magic Kingdom on Sunday night. "Delta definitely saved the day for us."
Social media made it possible.
The Red Raiders had reached out to the airline Thursday night after a logistical problem forced Frontier Airlines to cancel their scheduled flight from Philadelphia to Orlando, leaving the teams stranded at Philadelphia International Airport.
They were flying to Florida to compete after staging various fund raisers — washing cars in the high school parking lot, bagging groceries at the ShopRite in the Marmora section of Upper Township and selling buckets of Johnson's Popcorn — for two years.
Boys coach Matt Purdue, boys assistant Steve Hoffman, girls coach Trish Henry and others scoured the airport, hoping to find another flight, but had no luck. Around 10 p.m., Purdue announced they were headed back to Ocean City.
"Some of us were crying," senior runner Casey McLiss said. "We worked extremely hard to raise the money, so it was devastating when we found out we weren't going. When we went to get our luggage from baggage claim, we had lost all hope."
While the coaches were stopping at every airline counter in Terminal E, some of the runners had reached out for help through social media.
Someone posted a video on Twitter, then others followed with Tweets to various news outlets, airlines and national talk show host Ellen DeGeneres using the hashtag #getocxctodisney.
"Our race @SPNWWOS is tomorrow but our flight was cancelled!!," one of the messages read. "We like to run but not that far! @Delta can you help #getocxctodisney? @NBCSPhilly @TheEllenShow."
Delta's official Twitter account states that "We're listening around the clock, 7 days a week," it says.
It might actually be true. The group was gathering its bags, preparing to board the bus back to Ocean City, when Delta representatives Bulent Dogan and Ira Parker approached them.
Someone at Delta headquarters in Atlanta had read their Tweets and sent word to to Dogan, Parker and others to help the Red Raiders with their plight.
"Ira Parker told us he played football and ran track for Camden High School and had a real soft spot for teams," Purdue said. "They told us they were going to find a plane to take us. They really went above and beyond for us."
Because Delta doesn't fly from Philadelphia to Orlando, it sent a McDonnell-Douglas MD-88 from Atlanta to accommodate Ocean City's contingent.
It landed in Philadelphia around 4 a.m., 12 hours after the Red Raiders had arrived at the airport.
"We were the only people in the airport by that time," Purdue said. "Then they had to open TSA security for us and bring all our luggage to the plane."
The Red Raiders were the only people on the flight, which enabled everyone to have an entire row to themselves.
Most slept while others enjoyed the food and drinks that were served.
"It was first class all the way," Kelly said. "I felt like a VIP."
The plane landed in Orlando a little after 6 a.m. Friday. The teams checked into their hotels around 8 a.m. and managed only a couple hours of sleep before heading out for the races.
If they were tired, they didn't show it.
Ocean City's boys team won its race behind Owen Ritti, Anthony Conte, Kelly and Luke Kramer, who finished sixth, eighth, ninth and 10th overall, respectively. McLees led the Red Raiders' second-place girls team by finishing sixth, followed by Alexa Palmieri (10th), Becca Millar (14th) and Emma Sardy (19th). Ursuline School from New Rochelle, New York, won the girls title.
"I just told them to rise up," Purdue said. "They were given an incredible opportunity, and they needed to take advantage of it."
The teams spent Saturday and Sunday working out in the mornings, then had the rest of the days to enjoy themselves at the parks.
ABC's "Good Morning America" found out about the adventure and did a segment on the Red Raiders on Sunday morning.
"It was like something out of a Hallmark Christmas movie," McLees said. "We didn't think we were going to make it there, but once we did, we ran with a lot of heart and grit."