By Jeff Keeling
The Science Hill girls and Daniel Boone boys cross country teams aren’t likely to see competition like they did Saturday in Cary, N.C. again this year – not even at the state championship meet. The Great American Cross Country Festival also gave the area’s top individual runners, including Boone senior Ben Varghese, Science Hill senior Halle Hausman and Science Hill senior Alex Crigger, who ran unattached, a chance to see where they stacked up against some of the best runners in the Southeast and beyond.
Varghese blazed to sixth place overall in 15:12.6, and was nipped by 0.1 seconds by Northern Guilford (Greensboro, N.C.) junior David Melville. Crigger was 14th in 15:26.0, while Hausman finished 17th in the girls race in 18:31.2.
The two teams competed in the championship flight at the festival, which included four varsity race flights for both boys and girls, featuring a total of 77 girls and 85 boys teams. Boone, a likely top contender at state, was 20th out of 25 boys teams in the top flight. The Lady ‘Toppers were 15th of 22 teams.
Varghese was philosophical Sunday, admitting he’d been disappointed immediately after the race. He had let the lead pack get away from him at a point when he said he shouldn’t have, and fallen back to around 30th. Reigning Tennessee state champion Brodey Hasty, a Brentwood junior, charged past Rhode Island runner David Principe in the stretch to win by 0.2 seconds in a meet-record 14:32.2.
“I know I’ll have a chance against them again at state,” Varghese said of Hasty and another Brentwood runner who finished ahead of him, senior Taylor Vroon (14:57.4). Varghese also gets a chance to repeat as champion on his home course this coming Saturday as Boone hosts its annual Trailblazer Invitational.
Also scoring for Boone were senior Zac Branham (86th, 16:30), sophomore Chance Bowman (92nd, 16:36), senior Caleb Sells (142, 17:08.6) and sophomore Matt Huff (143, 17:09.7).
As he has been the last two times they’ve raced together, Science Hill senior Alex Crigger wasn’t far behind Varghese.
Crigger’s time was a personal best, and he said he was generally pleased with his performance. He edged Brentwood’s Jackson Vroon, Taylor Vroon’s twin, by 0.5 seconds. “I was hoping for a PR and to show myself I could run with such an elite group,” Crigger said while getting in a light run on the Tweetsie Trail early Monday evening.
While he’s been enjoying a strong season so far – including a second straight, close runner-up finish at the Spartanburg, S.C. Eye Opener in early September – Crigger said he’s focused more on helping a Science Hill boys team that has faced some adversity qualify for state.
Boone appears a clear favorite in the region, and Crigger mentioned Dobyns-Bennett, South Doyle and Morristown-West as three squads that, he hopes along with Science Hill, will vie for the remaining two team berths.
The ‘Toppers have had to deal with TSSAA’s ruling that sophomore Jeb Jones, a transfer from University High, would have to run junior varsity this season. In addition, senior Jared Hamby has been battling an Achilles injury. Crigger said if Hamby heals and returns to form, sophomore Thomas Seeley continues improving and the back of the ‘Topper lineup also steps up, the team should have a shot at joining him at state.
The team ran in the “red” division, finishing 11th of 23 schools without Crigger, whose time would have won that race by 20 seconds. Seeley led the way in 17:19 (30th), with freshman Aaron Jones next in 17:37 (50th). Junior Gavin Ledford was 62nd in 17:46, with a still-recovering Hamby 67th in 17:50.
The addition of Jones certainly would have been a major difference maker, and the sophomore showed it himself Saturday, winning the top-level JV race by seven seconds, in 16:44.
For Science Hill’s girls, after Hausman’s 18:31, junior Julia Simpson was next in 68th, at 19:57. Senior Casey Miller was 92nd in 20:20, with junior Gabrielle Mardis 16 seconds behind her and Taylor Canfield rounding out Science Hill’s scoring in 21:49.
Science Hill coach Evan Adams said a couple of weeks ago the team was chasing the clear regional favorite, Dobyns-Bennett, and that remained the case Saturday. D-B looked every bit a state title contender, finishing seventh in a packed field and led by freshman sensation Sasha Neglia’s third-place time of 17:39.
And while Dobyns-Bennett appears capable of bringing a state title to the Tri-Cities on the girls side, Brentwood clearly showed why its boys team will be the prohibitive favorite to bring home its second straight championship, and fifth in the last six years, come November. The team placed four runners in the top 17 but finished second overall thanks to the gap to its fifth runner, who was 93rd in the scoring.
Louisville’s St. Xavier showed the importance of pack running, beating Brentwood 111 to 119 despite its top runner placing 24th (17th in the scoring due to unattached runners). Their second through fifth runners were 26th, 29th, 32nd and 39th, with a minuscule 15 seconds between first and fifth. Brentwood’s fifth-place runner was 2:11 behind Hasty and a full 1:14 behind the team’s fourth runner.