By Doug Hawley
If there are any doubts about the quality of the local prep cross country scene, simply consider the accomplishments of last season, when five of the seven high school programs in Murray and Whitfield counties were represented at the Georgia High School Association’s state meets.
Seven total teams advanced, including both the boys and girls teams from Coahulla Creek and Northwest Whitfield. Dalton, Murray County and North Murray’s boys squads also advanced, and Dalton’s Bekah Houston competed as an individual in the final race of her decorated high school cross country career.
Northwest’s girls and Murray County’s boys each finished seventh in their respective state meets, Class 4A and Class 2A, and were the only local teams with a top-10 finish. At the region level, Dalton’s boys were the only local team to win a championship, but plenty of others were successful enough to qualify for a spot at state.
While it’s reasonable to expect more success for the area this year from both veteran performers and talented newcomers, The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Cross Country Runner of the Year awards for the top local boy and girl are guaranteed to have new names attached to them. Houston, who is now running for Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, won the honor the past three seasons. North Murray’s Isaac Pacheco, the boys winner each of the past two years, also graduated and will be part of Dalton State College’s new cross country program.
One other change follows a pattern. Christian Heritage School has added cross country for the first time and becomes the third new local program in as many years. The Lions and Lady Lions follow Morris Innovative (2012) and Coahulla Creek (2011) and push the total of area high school cross country boys and girls teams to 16, a number that stood at just half that five years ago.
Some area teams will begin competition Saturday at the Pickens Preview at Roper Park in Jasper, with others soon to follow. As competition continues over the next two months — high school meets are typically run on 5K (3.1-mile courses), with the top five finishers for each school counting toward the team score — all eyes will turn toward area or region meets in late October and early November.
Christian Heritage is in Area 4-A and will run on Oct. 31 at Darlington School. Morris Innovative and Murray County are in Region 7-2A and will run on Nov. 2 at Georgia Highlands College in Rome. Coahulla Creek and North Murray are in Region 5-3A and will run on Oct. 29 at Dellinger Park in Cartersville, and Dalton, Northwest and Southeast Whitfield are in Region 7-4A and will run on Nov. 2 at Roper Park in Jasper.
The top four teams and top six individuals at each of those meets will qualify for state. The GHSA’s 14 boys and girls state meets are set for Nov. 9 at Carrollton High School. Class A is split into private and public schools for state competition, while Classes 2A through 6A are not.
Here’s a glance at local schools as the season approaches.
No matter how successful they are this year, the runners on Christian Heritage’s 2013 roster will be remembered for at least one thing.
“I’m really proud of the boys and girls who are out for this historic season,” said coach Rhonda Burdette. “They can take pride in being the first ones.”
Although it was considered exhibition, the Lions ran in the recent Early Bird Invitational at North Cobb Christian School.
“They all got a taste of what running competition is,” Burdette said. “Now they can work each week on having personal best times.”
During that preseason activity, Jonathan Lewallen edged fellow sophomore Kameron Hawkins, 21:09 to 21:13, in a battle to be the Lions’ top finisher. Sophomore Tyler Tipton finished ahead of his freshman brother, Tate, for third place. Others competing for the Lions include Eli Duncan, Ben Crawford and Chris Keyes, juniors; and Justin Volzer, a freshman.
Mollie Crawford, who provides senior leadership, led the Lady Lions in 25:28.
Three sophomores enter the season as quality prospects behind Crawford — Rachel Gleaton, Annsley Lowe and Mallory Sanford. Kacie Griggs, a senior, is also being counted on to provide points. Other candidates are Audrey Johnston and Janna Plemmons, juniors; and Sidney Davis, a freshman.
Burdette, 1983 Berry College graduate, said she has competed in marathons and triathlons since her school days at south Georgia’s Valdosta High. With a young roster — there are no senior boys and only two senior girls — she is optimistic about the future.
“I hope to translate my love for running to these high school runners,” she said. “The running means so much to me.”
Although Coahulla Creek is heading only into its third cross country season, both the Colts and Lady Colts already have enjoyed the fruits of state competition, with the boys going to Carrollton each of the past two years.
The Colts claimed a runner-up Region 5-3A finish last season, while Coahulla Creek’s girls advanced by taking third place.
“The biggest surprise was the first year, when the boys finished third in the region and qualified for state,” Colts coach Josh Deslattes said. “We rather expected it last year with the boys.”
Both squads figure to be in the hunt for a return to state.
“We feel confident about a good run in the region this year,” Deslattes said. “We lost several seniors but have some good people returning.”
There are 14 juniors among 24 boys for Coahulla Creek. Sadoth Fraire, the lone senior, has been setting the early pace.
“Sadoth can run in the low 18s,” Deslattes said. “He was injured early last year but came back strong.”
Missael Fraire and Junior Villareal, a pair of juniors, and freshman Walt Douglas have a strong battle going for the No. 2 spot. The fifth berth could come down to identical twins Gaspar and Oscar Andrews, who are part of that large junior class.
Other performers include Gerardo Calderon, Austin Cole, Andrew Fisher, Timothy Hooper, Cesar Lee, Preston Pangle, Ben Phillips, Dylan Renard, Ronny Vargas and Evan Wright, juniors; Nicholas Lara, Drew Satterfield, Deep Soni and Brannon Wilson, sophomores; and Brett Hollis, Bryce Jones, Ethan Langford and Bo Sheppard, freshmen.
Dee Goodwin has taken over as the Lady Colts’ coach, replacing Ben Williams, who now coaches in Cleveland, Tenn.
“Give us some time,” Goodwin said. “By the end of the year, we’ll be stronger than last year.”
Senior Evelyn Botello and freshman Morgan King have a close battle going as the top runner, with both focusing on 21 minutes. Then comes balance among sophomores Hayley Hight, Bethany Goodwin and Landon Kidwell and juniors Ationza Smith and Rachel Cherry.
Depth comes from Silvia Esteban, Gisel Maldonado, Julissa Romero, Kacky Sheppard and Elizabeth Trejo, juniors; and Erin Elrod and Kimberly Spivey, freshmen.
Seniors Brandon Pineda and Eduardo Loredo are being counted on to lead the Catamounts as they try to repeat as Region 7-4A champions.
“Brandon and Eduardo are our most experienced runners from last year,” Dalton coach Karen Galyon said while reflecting on her second league title in half a dozen years at the helm. “They have to lead the way.”
Galyon said both regularly post solid 17-minute times.
“Our boys right now compare favorably with last year’s group,” Galyon said. “They have a lot of potential. Most of them ran well in our recent time trial.”
At this juncture, the top three for team scoring would likely be junior Sergio Aguirre, sophomore Jay Tripp and senior Urbiel Martinez.
Quality contributions will come from Joel Espino, Angel Medina and Johan Vargas, seniors; Sayul Izaguirre, Antonio Martinez, Luke Raffey, Ivan Rivero, Diego Sanchez and Erik Villalobos, juniors; Ernesto Grimaldo, Atanacio Perez and Moises Ponce, sophomores; and Jose Boyzo, Joel Paez, Vinny Vega and Erik Zamora, freshmen.
For the two previous seasons, Dalton’s girls have finished fifth at region — one spot short of qualifying for state.
“We certainly want to get the girls back to state,” Galyon said. “They’re certainly capable of getting back.”
Houston’s exit leaves a huge vacancy, but Galyon isn’t asking any single runner to fill it.
“We don’t have anybody of Bekah’s quality,” Galyon said. “However, there is the balance of having everybody closer with their times. We have some young ones who have surprised.”
Galyon cited three veteran performers battling for the top spot — seniors Bitia Paz and Monica Vega and junior Ashley Parham. Junior Liz Cloud, who missed last year due to an injury but participated as a freshman, is also a quality runner. Those four participants all appear capable of running in the 21-minute range.
Others capable of contributing include Rosa Perez, senior; Beronica Hernandez, Brenda Rodriguez, Melissa Resendiz, Adriana Perez, Lisa Sanchez, Fabiola Torres and Oli Valdez, sophomores; and Sarah Kate Coleman, Arcelia Garnica and Julia Sain, freshmen.
After serving as an assistant under Dee Bonds in the program’s opening season, Julia Cagle has taken over as head coach for the Tigers and Lady Tigers.
“When (Bonds) decided not to do it this year, she handed over the torch to me,” Cagle said.
Although the 2001 Dalton graduate was not a distance runner in her school days, she has competed in local 5K road races for the past six years.
“I love the individual side of it,” Cagle said. “I played soccer in high school, which certainly required running.”
Cagle has almost all new names on her roster.
“Due to the turnover we have here in the school, we have only one returning boy,” Cagle related. “We only had one girl out last year, and she got injured. We have four girls out now.”
Ethan Martinez, a junior, is the returning boy whom the Tigers’ coach praised as a “committed runner.” However, sophomore Jonathan Herrera has been setting the early pace in the 21-minute range.
Seniors Russell Burse and Diego Fraire provide leadership. Junior Ronald Bueso and sophomore Ty Hill round out the boys’ squad.
“Ty is conditioning for basketball,” Cagle said. “That is fine with me.”
The girls are a work in progress.
“Most of them have never run in an actual race,” the coach said. “They’re brand new to running.”
Jennifer Hernandez represents the senior class. The others are all juniors — Diana Alvarez, Denisse Cuevas and Anastasia Murphy.
“Denisse also plays (junior varsity) volleyball,” Cagle said. “She splits time with us.”
With five runners needed to garner a team score, numbers are a concern.
“We do need one more girl to count in the team scoring,” Cagle said. “On the boys, we need to keep the people that we have.”
A second-place finish at last year’s Region 7-2A boys meet gives Murray County coach Sam Young confidence the Indians could take home the top league prize this time.
“We have as good a shot as anybody at winning the region,” Young said. “We should be a better team. We lost only our No. 5 boy from last year. Model, which won the region, lost their No. 1 runner who finished high in the state.”
Ivan Delgado and Servio Martinez appear even for the top spot in a battle of seniors. They both run in the 17-minute range.
“They push each other,” Young said. “That is good for both of them.”
A balanced trio of seniors Austin Pearson and Jose Ruiz and junior John David Adams are the other probable scorers.
Other Murray candidates include Fernando Arias, Antonio Bautista, Filberto Nunez and Jose Moreno, seniors; Daniel Albor, Richard Cruz, Noel Moreno and Brian Yanez, juniors; Antonio Martinez, Hilario Reymundo and Eric Soto, sophomores; and Jordy Martinez and Cristian Roses, freshmen.
Although Murray County’s girls did not have the required five runners last year to score, the Lady Indians featured one of the area’s top runners in Nayeli Jacobo. She finished seventh at region — one spot shy of going to state — is now running for Dalton State College.
This time there are seven candidates to gain the team scoring qualification.
“If we can hold them together, we have a shot at going to state with the girls,” Young said. “Some other teams in our region also have had trouble fielding full girls’ teams.”
Kaitylin Richardson, a junior, is in her first season, Nevertheless, she has the nod at No. 1.
“Kaitylin’s very athletic,” Young lauded. “She has been in track, where she ran the mile. She also plays basketball.”
Nicole Hammett appears solid at No. 2. She and Rubi Perez provide senior leadership.
Other Lady Indians participants include juniors Monica Bermudez, Kloe Brown and Celena Sanchez and freshman Maddie Phillips.
Jesus Cruz has waited patiently to lead the Mountaineers, but with Pacheco’s exit he is the undisputed leader.
“He had been in Isaac’s shadow,” said coach Matt Chambers, who’s in his second year leading the program. “Now it’s his turn. He is 100 percent dedicated.”
According to Chambers, the 6-foot Cruz is capable of the 17-minute range.
With Cruz setting the pace, the Mountaineers hope to qualify for state again after advancing by finishing fourth in Region 5-3A last year.
“It definitely will take a tremendous team effort to make it to state again,” Chambers said. “We lost about five or six seniors from last year.”
Junior Jacob Hixenbaugh and freshman Chandler Keith are staging a tough battle for the runner-up spot. Senior Brandon Gonzales and freshman Chandler Keith likely will round out the five scorers.
If anybody falters, senior Santiago Mancilla appears ready to fill the vacancy. The same can be said for junior Jerardo Fraire, sophomore Alexander Elliot and freshmen Brandon Johnson and Kevin Solis.
The Lady Mountaineers have eight runners on the roster after not having enough for a team score in 2012, and junior Jessica Gasper is leading the way.
“She runs in the 23-minute range,” Chambers said. “She’s a hard worker.”
Jessica Rangel, another junior, appears to be the next top scorer. Sophomore Alonda Bennett should push for points.
Battling to crash the top five are junior Leslie Perez, sophomores Taylor Price and Naomi De Santiago and freshmen Nevada Colter and Mackenzie Walston.
“We have a super young girls team,” Chambers said. “We have no seniors. The future is bright for them.”
Northwest’s boys have enough veteran performers for a legitimate shot at returning to state.
“We’ve got five of our top seven boys back,” Northwest coach Tom Sell said. “I like our chances of getting back to state.”
Those two departures, twin brothers Brody and Parker Cook — who earned spots on The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Boys Cross Country Team in 2012 — do leave voids. They’ll be part of the inaugural season at Dalton State College.
The Bruins finished third in last year’s Region 7-4A meet and were 14th at the Class 4A state meet.
“All five of those state qualifiers have run in the (18-minute range),” said Sell, who is in his eighth year leading the program. “They’re all capable of running in the (17-minute range).”
Sophomore Henson Gibbs has been setting the pace in preseason action. Other leading Bruins include seniors Lane Bramblett and Dylan Richards, junior Brandon Bolino and sophomore Luke Stevens.
Others competing for varsity time include Troy Poe, senior; Noe Castro, Drew Guffey, Phillip Hammonds, Brandon Heuser and Nathaniel Sparks, juniors; Carson Brock, Kyle Roberts and Skylar Williams, sophomores; Christian Burton, Lane Delay, Jordan Frye and Michael Pipkin, freshmen.
The Lady Bruins were fourth at region last year to set up their seventh-place finish at state, the best showing in Sell’s tenure.
“Our girls took a massive hit from graduation,” Sell said. “Of our seven seniors from last year, five are running in college. There’s no telling what our girls will do this year.”
Senior Caroline Duffy and sophomore Ashley Sweeney are the lone returning state qualifiers. Both are capable of clocking in the 21-minute range.
Likely to join them in the scoring are seniors Hannah Hutchinson, Dala Hufstetler and Abby Thomas and junior Tilea West. Others trying to make their mark are Whitney Wilkins, senior; Leah Frye, Nicole Gray, Hailey Henderson, Alma Muhtovic, Samantha Wooten, Kaitlyn Rabun and Emilee Shackleford, juniors; and Meagan Johnston, Emily Lugthart and Jen Rivera, freshmen.
Southeast’s girls missed a state qualification by two places last year, finishing sixth in the Region 7 4-A Meet.
“We should be a better team this year because we have a lot more girls out,” said Carrie Bishop, who’s in her fourth year as the Lady Raiders’ coach. “We have people pushing each other more.”
Her roster of 15 girls is led by sophomore Isabel Salinas. She joined the runners last year after softball season and paced the Lady Raiders at the region meet.
“Isabel is just going to do cross country this year,” Bishop said of Salinas, who has clocked a best of 22:59. “She pushes herself.”
Sophomore Ana Padilla provides the biggest challenge, while juniors Jessica Flores and Sandy Torres and senior Jessica Cervantes likely will comprise the five scorers.
Other Southeast candidates include Brenda Canales, Cinthia Flores, Jessica Lugo, Clarissa Martinez and Brittany Sandoval, juniors; Sandy Baza-Figueroa, Sheila Islas and Veronia Zamora, sophomores; and Daisy Ramirez and Yesenia Ramirez, freshmen.
Southeast’s boys, who finished in the lower tier at the region meet a year ago, might be hard-pressed to reach the higher tier.
“We’re not as strong this year from top to bottom,” said Raiders coach Kevin Kettenring, who’s in his second season leading the boys. “However, it’s still early.”
Juan Ruiz, a senior, goes as the top Raider.
“Juan was injured for part of last year’s season,” Kettenring said. “He has a goal of a sub-19. He can do that. Maybe 18:30 or 18:40.”
Other probable top five performers are juniors Martin Arredondo and Omar Ruiz, sophomore Adrian Gonzalez and freshman Diego Cervantes.
Depth comes from Jorge Cuevas, Rolando Hernandez, Jose Hurtado, Ruendy Martinez, Jose Quijano and Hunter Young, seniors; Alejandro Luna, Omar Rangel, Roberto Sandate, Jesus Torres and Huy Tran, juniors; Christian Gonzalez, Jose Hurtado, Lixandro Ramirez, Cruz Ruis and Sandro Ruiz, sophomores; and Luis Perez and Daniel Triana, freshmen.