By Jeff Keeling
The Science Hill boys’ cross country team put conference rival and defending state champion Daniel Boone on notice Saturday, winning a large invitational meet in South Carolina hours before Boone eked out a team victory in its own two-mile invitational. Boone’s win (senior Josh Routh was the individual champion in a blistering 9:09) put them first in the nation in HOKA One’s current Postal National two-mile rankings, with meet runner-up Oak Ridge currently standing third. Science Hill’s and Boone’s girls’ teams both were third at the respective meets.
The two boys’ teams, clearly establishing themselves again as among the state’s elite, won’t line up head-to-head until Oct. 3 at the earliest. That’s when both are scheduled to race at the Great American meet in Cary, N.C., though that meet has multiple races and they could run in separate fields. Soon after, they’ll see each other plenty, starting with Boone’s Trailblazer meet Oct. 10. The Big Nine conference meet is slated for Oct. 22 in Bristol, with regionals Oct. 29 at Boone.
With eventual 14th-place finisher Malick Gemeche setting the pace for dynamic duo Alex Crigger and Noah Charles, the Hilltopper boys raced to a dominant team victory at one of the Southeast’s most competitive early season meets. Science Hill’s girls finished third at the meet, the Eye Opener in Spartanburg.
Gemeche, Science Hill’s number three, made what Head Coach Jennifer Brockett called “a gutsy move” by going out front.
“In the workouts he’s been able to hang with them for the first two thirds or so, so I told him to stay with Alex and Noah in the first two miles and in the last mile do whatever you can to hang on.”
Gemeche led the field for roughly two miles of the 3.1-mile race before race winner Malik Epps passed him. Crigger kicked ahead of Epps at 250 meters to go before finishing just a few steps and less than a second behind.
“(Epps) struggled up that last hill and Alex was going strong, but once they hit the crest of it he got his lead back,” Brockett said.
Science Hill’s boys handily beat South Carolina’s 2014 cross country runner up, Wando, 83-141. Rounding out the Toppers’ scoring were Alex Grajeda (16:55, 26th) and Harrison Barrett (17:15, 37th). Crigger, a junior, is one of only two underclassman currently in Science Hill’s varsity (top seven).
“It shows where we are and what we can strive for,” Brockett said. “The boys knew that if they won, the gives them a better perspective to go for the win at state this year.”
Crigger was 13th and Charles 14th last fall at state, where Science Hill finished fifth as a team. Brockett said Saturday’s results show more depth behind them this season. The next step is to keep Gemeche with Crigger and Charles further into races and bring the four and five runners closer to the front, she said. At least four runners are battling for the four and five spots, with senior Josh Simpson and freshman Thomas Seeley also in the mix.
“Everything’s kind of falling into place,” Brockett said. “Now it’s shortening the gap between the packs.”
The girls’ third-place finish was nothing to sneeze at either, Brockett added. The winner, Greenville, S.C. Riverside, is among the nation’s top teams, and reigning Tennessee state champion Morristown West was second, just 25 points ahead of Science Hill. Science Hill’s number two, senior Lydia Lee, stayed with top runner Halle Hausman, a junior, for much of the race. Hausman finished fourth in 18:57 and Lee was ninth in 19:22. Gabrielle Mardis (20:03, 24th), Casey Miller (20:45, 39th) and Taylor Canfield (21:09, 47th) rounded out Science Hill’s top five. All but Lee are sophomores or juniors.
Big fun at the track and a blistering performance
Saturday night at Daniel Boone, teams from around East Tennessee converged for a HOKA One two-miler on the track. Last year, HOKA reintroduced a two-mile national contest, with teams eligible to submit five runners’ times from any race on a track. The times are compiled into an average, and Boone won last year’s championship with a 9:32, bringing a visit from Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano.
Routh, who placed fourth at last year’s state championships, won that race in a personal-best 9:09. Junior Ben Varghese’s second place finish (9:34) helped Boone edge Oak Ridge 41-43.
“We knew it was going to be close,” Jeffers said of the contest with the Wildcats, who finished third at state last year. “I knew they had some really good guys coming back and they’ve got some young guys they’ve developed over the course of the year. There was nothing that caused you to think it was going to be a pushover.”
Jeffers said the environment proved fun for fans and encouraging for the runners. Nearly 300 runners ran in nine large heats, and fans were allowed onto the outer lanes of the track. Others scoring for Boone were senior Mitch Bronstetter (10:15, 11th), freshman Chance Bowman (10:16, 12th) and junior Zac Branham (10:21, 14th).
“Our three, four and five ran great. They stayed locked up,” Jeffers said.
Boone also placed Nick Roth, Daniel Johnson, Caleb Sells, Noah White and Nick Bronstetter in the top 40.
“I’m good with where we’re at,” Jeffers said of the boys’ team. “It’s a matter of where do you want to be, do you want to be there in September or do you want to be there in November.”
In a race won easily by David Crockett sophomore Breanna Roy, Boone’s young, rapidly improving girls’ team finished third, paced by junior Makayla Shaw’s fifth-place finish. The team, which was well behind second-place Dobyns-Bennett, appears unlikely to challenge two-time state champion Science Hill (1994, 2008) for area dominance yet, but Jeffers said he’s very pleased with the progress so far by Shaw’s running mates, who include two sophomores and four freshmen.
“Every little detail we try to implement in our program, they’ve bought into,” Jeffers said. “They’re doing all the right things.”
In addition to Shaw, scoring for Boone’s girls were freshman Marley McCoy (12:22, 13th), freshman Erin Bruce (12:32, 16th), sophomore Maria Chellah (13:05, 22nd) and freshman Gracie Murray (13:11, 25th).