By Jeff Keeling — Photos courtesy Eric Roth
Hundreds of high school boys ran cross country in the Tri-Cities this fall. Thousands ran across Tennessee, probably more than 10,000 across the Southeast. Daniel Boone’s seven varsity runners – already state champions – emerged Saturday in Portland, Ore., as the 14th-best team in the nation.
Barely in the conversation among the 22 teams from across the nation before the gun sounded for the Nike Cross Nationals, the boys from Gray made plenty of noise and gained plenty of attention from the announcers as they passed the first split in the 5,000-meter course in second place. They hung around the top five well into the race before fading late, but still outperformed, Coach Len Jeffers said Monday.
The team employed a strategy of aggressive running from the start of the muddy course on Glendoveer golf course. Jeffers said he preferred that to seeing his team get bottled up in the tightly packed field of elite runners and finish thinking about “could haves.”
“There’s about a 370-meter straight stretch to start, and then it took a pretty good little turn to the left and there were places where the course narrowed down to 20, 25 meters,” Jeffers said. “That’s still pretty wide, but when you’ve got this many people of this caliber, there was not going to be a whole lot of stretching out early on. They were going to be packed in clusters with not a whole lot of room to move if you’re stuck in the middle and toward the back.”
So the team – runners-up Nov. 29 in Cary, N.C. at the Nike Southeastern Regional to qualify for the all expenses paid trip to Portland – hit that opening stretch with all they had. Seniors Adam Barnard, juniors Josh Routh, Mitch Bronstetter and Nick Roth, and sophomores Ben Varghese and Zac Branham hit the narrowing curve just where they wanted to be.
Gray, as the announcers called the team in its Nike-issued blue shorts and white jerseys, was second with 149 points at the one kilometer mark, where a computer tracked team scores. Eventual champion Manlius (N.Y.) led with 108 points. (Points are calculated by adding the top five of seven runners overall places.)
By the second split, close to halfway through the race, Gray was still in fourth, but had 200 points to 69 for Manlius.
“A definite surprise there is Gray, currently in fourth,” one announcer in the live-streamed race said. “Daniel Boone High, out of Tennessee, them being here in the top five is a big, big surprise.”
By the end, like their leader Barnard – who finished fifth after running second until very late in the race – the team faded to their ultimate finish, but had no regrets. From the treatment by Nike to the runners’ performance, Jeffers was happy and so was his squad.
“Gray, Tennessee was getting a lot of air time,” Jeffers said. “I think it may have been something that some people out on that side of the country didn’t expect.”
He said Boone had been predicted to finish 16th or 17th. In the scoring, Barnard had two points, Garst 36, Varghese 42, Routh 87 and Bronstetter 135. Overall – a number of individual runners had qualified at regionals but did not have a team to score for – the quintet finished in places 5, 70, 78, 129, and 180, with Branham at 196 and Roth 198.
“Obviously there are some cons to that strategy,” Jeffers said. “Some of them with a little bit more conservative start could maybe have had a better race, who knows? But we were not anybody’s top three or top five pick. We had nothing to lose. The strategy was to get out of there, get out of that box and give yourself some room to position yourself.”
He said runners from some other schools got boxed in and weren’t able to move forward when they had the physical ability to do so. Evidence of the tight packing of runners was the fact that while Routh finished 51 spots behind Varghese, he was just 25 seconds slower.
“It was just one of those things, take a chance, get out and give yourself a little space, and hang on for the best that you could do in the last race of the season.”
As for the treatment in Portland, Jeffers said words could hardly describe it from the time the team arrived Wednesday evening until their departure Sunday afternoon. Running superstars were everywhere.
“Thursday afternoon on the way over to the locker rooms they ran into Galen Rupp (2012 Olympic silver medalist in the 10,000 meters), who stopped and talked to them and took pictures,” Jeffers said.
And those locker rooms were contained a nirvana of Nike gear. “Hanging in each locker were the sweats and uniform, training shoes and spikes and the backpack,” Jeffers said. “All their gear. It was something that they will probably never forget.”
“I could talk for hours and still not cover everything Nike did for all these kids. They made every athlete and every coach feel important. They just treated everyone with the respect they deserved for being there.”
Likewise, the team’s reception at Tri-Cities Airport late Sunday night was impressive, Jeffers said. “Everyone was proud and happy and excited about what they had accomplished.”
Whether a team from Gray ever reaches a national meet again, Jeffers said he believes the rise to prominence of this year’s squad has been a difference-maker for quite a few boys already.
“The kids realize now there are scholarships out there, and quite a few of our former runners from the past few years are running on scholarship today. Some are getting to go to bigger schools than they probably would have gone to otherwise. Without scholarships, some probably would have ended up going to Northeast State, where they don’t even have a running program.”
Make no mistake, though. The coach, with the help of co-coach Ray Jones, is more than ready to continue grooming runners for excellence.
“This has been one of those special seasons with a special team, and you never know when or if you’ll have another opportunity like this,” Jeffers said.
“But the underclassmen, if they can come back using this as some motivation and by talking and showing pictures motivate some of the younger kids to work harder over the next 12 months, their goal would be to try to be a part of it again.
“Regardless of whether the coaches want to go or not, it comes down to the kids. How bad do the kids want to commit doing what they have to do.”