By A.J. Kaufman
Washington County has always been a hotbed for distance running. Both the Milligan University men’s and women’s cross country programs recently won national titles and start this school year ranked among the top NAIA programs in America thanks in large part to local talent.
Milligan Head Coach Chris Layne is entering his 25th season at the helm. He’s led the Buffs to two team national championships, 17 individual national champions and has coached 170 All-Americans. Many of those star athletes came from our region.
Layne believes ongoing success in recruiting around the Tri-Cities is due to a “phenomenal region for running,” with hills, trails, four distinct seasons and open space. He also credits legendary ETSU Track & Field coach Dave Walker for helping the “culture of running trickle into the community,” due to Walker’s decades leading a prominent college program.
“You have a massive running boom as it relates to education, the internet, social media, and so the state of Tennessee has exploded with talent — from Middle Tennessee, West Tennessee, and it’s now bled into the East Tennessee region,” Layne told the News and Neighbor. “The state as whole is competitive. So when that happens, good coaches raise their bar and go out and seek more information. I think our region and our area specifically has done a pretty good job as it relates to high school programs.”
Student athletes from Science Hill, University High, Daniel Boone High and across the Tri-Cities have contributed to recent overall Milligan achievements, including an individual national champion in each of the last eight years.
This year’s squad has 27 incoming freshmen — out of 40 total — from Tennessee alone, including five of the Volunteer State’s top 51 high school seniors, in terms of 5K times. Roughly 20 track or cross country members on the current Milligan roster hail from Johnson City, Jonesborough, Gray or Telford.
Senior Aaron Jones, a Science Hill graduate, is one of the most accomplished student-athletes in school history. He’s run No. 1 for the Buffs at cross country nationals for three years. In those years, Milligan finished third in 2020-21, first in 2021 and second in 2022. Jones also won an individual championship last season in the 5K.
“Aaron is another one of those young men you would definitely call a coach’s athlete; he lives, sleeps, eats and breathes running. He’s committed at a high level,” Layne said of Jones, who had Division 1 offers but chose Milligan. “Aaron is a workhorse, he trusts his coaches, takes care of himself and does the little things on regular basis to always stay in a good position.”
Layne says Jones has never missed a meet due to injury.
“It has to do with his love for the sport, his buy in, and his attention to detail,” Layne pointed out. “Then combine that with the level of talent and toughness, it’s why he’s continued to improve every year…He makes everyone around him better.”
Incoming Freshman Bryson Lewis is a Daniel Boone product who emerged as a top runner in Tennessee last year.
“What we see in Bryson is a lot of what we see in Aaron,” Layne said. “His parents say he’ll make sacrifices… because he’s got a responsibility running wise and that passion.”
When it comes to Boone’s program in particular, the Milligan coach says, “obviously they’ve got something going out there.”
“What we have seen is those kids have naturally migrated to being good fits for us,” Layne explained. “They thought outside the box and always kept an open mind as it relates to the potential of succeeding at a place that may not be a household name. Their kids are well coached and left with room to improve. Every kid we’ve had come from Boone, we’ve seen tremendous growth.”
On the women’s side, Layne mentions Junior Natalie Fellers and Senior Lauren Spry, who both enjoyed success at Boone and continued to grow in the Milligan program.
He argues Boone’s approach is “refreshing” today when some coaches overdo it.
“We’ve seen kids come to us and continue to improve,” the coach added. “That tells us they have the right ingredients to be successful long term, and they’re taking into account the bigger picture, rather than a quick fix.”
As for the coming season, Layne considers himself fortunate to return five of his top seven runners and therefore he thinks his teams will be in the national conversation yet again. He says he shored up his recruiting by bringing in top junior college talent like Hannah Brown from California.
“Milligan has been able to flourish because I believe we offer a coaching environment where kids know they’ll come in and get better,” he said. “Then you combine that with an academic opportunity that is probably second to none in region, so we’ve been able to capitalize on that and build consistency. That’s the key. It is longevity, consistency, and that takes time to build when you’re not a premier sport.”
The Buffs’ first meet occurs Sept. 1 at the Firetower Project Run in Boone, N.C.