Last year, the White County High School cross country program made history at the Class AAAA state meet. For the first time in program history, the girls and boys teams both posted Top 5 finishes at the Georgia State Cross Country Championships.
The Warriors, who hadn’t placed in the Top 5 since 1994, scored 144 points to place fifth among 32 teams in the field, while the Lady Warriors followed suit, scoring 190 points in the girls’ race to finish fifth among 29 teams.
With the 2019 season set to start this week, the WCHS squads begin their quest to get back on the state podium in November.
“We're excited about it,” WCHS head coach Matt Dover said about the start of the season. “There's a lot of miles to be run, and we're excited and motivated for the season to start. We're starting to get a little restless and the we're all ready for it to start. We've got a great program and we take a lot of pride in what's been built here. “The kids have worked so hard to continue the excellent standard of the program.”
The season kicks off today for the junior varsity runners, who will take part in the War Eagle Invitational this afternoon at Chestatee High School. The varsity runners start the season Saturday with a trip to Rome for the Clara Bowl event on the campus of Berry College.
WCHS will be without some of their top runners from the historic season, which had Dover a little worried during the off-season.
“We were a little nervous about losing so many seniors from last year's team, but we have some great returning athletes and the other kids have really stepped up and been committed to the process,” Dover said. “We went to camp in July and really bonded as a team, and we've been practicing really hard every since. We've had a lot of tough workouts, but the kids have pushed through them. The group has a great work ethic. Every practice has been inspiring. Both the girls and boys are running together as a pack. The Wolfpack tradition is alive.”
Along with the trip to Berry, the schedule includes several big events that will pit the WCHS runners against some of the best runners in the state, including the Eye Opener Invitational in Spartanburg, S.C, the Darlington Cross Country Festival in Rome, the Coach Wood
Invitational in Whitesburg, and the annual Mountain Invitational at Unicoi State Park.
“We looked at our schedule, and wanted to do what's best for our kids,” Dover said. “We eliminated some meets and we kept some of the ones we've been doing, and we added a few new ones. We're being selective in the meets we're running. We realize the most important meets of the year are region and state. Those are the pinnacles of the season, and we want to be running at our peak level. We're excited about Berry. We put in a lot of miles during the summer, and now we've been focusing on strength and speed. Berry will be a great test for us.”
The Lady Warriors posted a fifth-place finish last year at the state meet, but lost one of the best runners in the program's history when Jaelen Alexander graduated last summer. The Lady Warriors also lost Addie Bolton, who has been a key part of the program the past four years. But fortunately, the cupboard is far from bare.
A handful of talented and experienced runners are back, which gives the squad hopes of another top tier finish at the Class AAAA state meet in November.
Ellie Gearing, Sydnee Nix, Maggie Davidson, Josie Stover, Leah Alexander, Sydney Palmer and Lily Gearing all are experienced runners.
Ellie Gearing is the team's top returning runner, finishing 34th in the state meet last season. She is one of the team's captains, along with fellow senior Maggie Davidson, and is one of team's top three runners going into the season, along with junior Sydnee Nix and freshman Nealeigh Broadwell.
“There's a long history of Gearings in the program,” Dover said. “Ellie is known as more of a sprinter (in track), but she can run for days. She has put in a lot of work.”
Nix missed almost all of her sophomore season due to an injury, but she's worked her way back to the top of the Lady Warriors' lineup.
“I had heard so much about Sydnee, but I never got to see her run (healthy) last year, so I'm excited to watch her run this year,” Dover said. “She really stepped up this summer. She always has a positive attitude; she's inspiring. She's been a leader and she's a great runner.”
Broadwell made a quick impact in first summer with the team, proving she will be a big part of the varsity lineup.
“She had to fight some injuries last year in middle school, but she's back and running really well,” Dover said. “She's stepped right in and made the team stronger. With Ellie, Sydnee and Nealeigh, we have three girls that can push each other. They run each other hard.”
Lily Gearing, Davidson, Stover and Alexander all competed in the state meet last year. Gearing, Stover and Davidson finished 50th, 51st and 52nd, respectively, while Alexander was 86th.
“Lily is another Gearing and she's running really well,” Dover said. “She's so athletic. Maggie is a great leader, she's has gotten faster and she has a great work ethic. Josie kind of came out of nowhere last year at the state meet and turned in a great time to help us finish high (in the team standings). She had a great track season and has gotten stronger and faster. Leah is part of a legacy being Jaelen's sister, so she has some big shoes to fill, but she's not afraid of it, and she's not afraid of hard work. Sydney Palmer has really brought so much to this team, and has really stepped up and loved on these young girls and taken them under her wing and has helped create a strong unified team”
Freshmen Reese Vandergriff, Ella Blair and Michalla Corcimiglia round out the varsity Top 10 heading into the opening week of the season. Haley Bailey, Riley Robinson and Lydia Davidson will compete in JV events for the Lady Warriors.
“We have a strong group of freshmen runners on the girls' side,” Dover said. “They have really come in and fit in quickly. It's a very talented group.
The boys' squad garnered a fifth-place finish at the 2018 state meet, but several key pieces on the team graduated, including Noah Rapert, Jovani Gonzalez, Mason Mitchell, Tyler Kinson and Bennett Davidson.
Eamonn O'Bryant, Dominic Stevens and Maverick Aguilar are the only returning runners that competed in the state meet last year. O'Bryant had the Warriors' best time at the state meet, finishing 28th overall.
“Eamonn is our captain, and he's so consistent,” Dover said. “He's such a good runner and he works so hard. Dominic and Maverick are both great kids and runners.”
Senior Iyan Windham, a standout soccer player, has joined the team and is expected to contribute heavily to the team's effort.
“Iyan is one of those kids that I wish we had gotten earlier,” Dover said. “He's a great soccer player and he's got a chance to be an amazing runner.”
Another first-year senior Hector Molina has earned a spot in the Top 7, along with a pair of freshmen – Kyler Mayo and Lance Kelley.
“Hector is another one we wished we had gotten earlier,” Dover said. “He's improved so much this summer. Kyler is a really good athlete, he's a baseball player too, and Lance was one of the middle school's top runners last year along with Kyler.”
Junior Dakota Seabolt and freshmen Issac Sosebee and Wyatt Churchwell are also in the mix for a varsity spot. Josh Kerlin, Carlos Martinez, Charley Bailey, Jeremiah Potts and Cole Gearing round out the Warriors' roster.
“We have such a strong group of freshmen, and they all work really hard,” Dover said. “They've only been out here since the summer, but it seems like they've been running with us for a long time.”