By Jeff Keeling
Daniel Boone’s Josh Routh and Science Hill’s Noah Charles have battled for several years now on the cross country course and the track, helping lead their high school teams into the top tier of Tennessee’s distance running programs. Come next fall, they’ll put aside what has been a friendly rivalry and begin their college careers as teammates at East Tennessee State University.
“Boone and Science Hill are good friends,” Charles said last week. “We want each other to succeed, but we also want to beat each other. It’s a competitive rivalry.”
George Watts, ETSU’s fourth-year track and cross country coach, has his sights set on toppling perennial national power Furman on the cross country course. To do that, he’s applying plenty of focus close to home. Charles will sign to attend ETSU today, and Routh has also committed.
They’ll join a team that finished third in last fall’s Southern Conference championships and second in 2014, and that already features Boone graduate and SoCon freshman of the year James Garst, who finished 14th at the conference championship meet and was also named second team all conference.
At the 2014 Tennessee state cross country championships, Garst was third, with then-juniors Routh and Charles fourth and 15th, respectively. In 2015, Routh finished second at the state championships and Charles was fifth.
“I’m a big believer in in-state kids,” said Watts, who coached at his alma mater, the University of Tennessee, for 26 years before coming to head ETSU’s program. “The talent is there, and maybe some of them – not all of them – might be a little underdeveloped.”
That means some of those local recruits arrive with a high ceiling and the raw talent to develop into the kind of team members that can keep ETSU moving up the ladder.
“I know ETSU is a program that has tremendous potential, and Coach Watts does a great job,” said the heavily recruited Routh, whose final choices came down to ETSU and the University of Wisconsin. “I think possibly within the next three years ETSU’s going to be a premier cross country program.”
Routh, an A student and senior class president, wants to become a pharmacist and already has completed pharmacy tech-related coursework at Boone. ETSU and Wisconsin were the only schools recruiting him with pharmacy programs. He is focusing on the 800 and 1600 meters in track this spring. He placed eighth at state last year in the 1600.
Routh and Charles have spent four years stepping to the starting line as rivals, but Charles said it’s been a friendly competition. “We goof around,” Charles said. “Last meet I said, ‘the only reason why you’re fast is because you’re ugly.’ He said, ‘I’ll remember that.’”
That meet, the Tri-Cities Track Classic at Science Hill, featured the pair competing in the steeplechase, in Routh’s first-ever try at the race. Charles finished second and Routh third, with Charles’ Science Hill teammate, junior Alex Crigger, qualifying for nationals in his win.
Charles said he hopes to hone his steeplechase skills at ETSU, which he chose over University of Tennessee-Chattanooga largely because of the rapport he developed with Watts. “He likes the steeple, I like the steeple, so I’m pretty excited about next year,” Charles said. “I realized ETSU would be the best fit, coach-wise, school-wise and financially too. Everything worked out.”
Never one to shy away from laying down the gauntlet, Charles said he believes ETSU can move to the elite level in cross country and distance running in track and field. “East Tennessee’s been really elite at the high school level the last couple of years,” he said. “If (Watts) keeps recruiting these really good runners from around here, the gap between ETSU and Furman will close eventually. I’m really excited about it.”
In addition to Routh, Charles and Garst, Watts’s corps of area runners includes sophomores Haydn Borghetti-Metz, (Rogersville) Carl Oberfeitinger (Kingsport), Simeon Roberts (Greeneville), Jonathan Foote (Bristol) and Boone graduate Ashton Wilson; and freshman Nick Horne (Blountville).
Watts said he’s also signed Cookeville’s Nathan Longfellow and Farragut’s Louis Morris, who placed ninth and 14th at state last fall. Adam Bradtmueller, one of the top runners in the Southeast from Sarasota, Fla., will also join the team.
Along with the local recruits, “I think we’re going to be a much stronger men’s team going forward with those kids,” Watts said.
They’ll need to be to catch Furman. The Paladins easily won the conference championship meet and finished 13th at nationals. Furman runners were packed together in second through eighth places at the conference final, scoring just 20 points. VMI had 79, ETSU 90, and the Bucs’ average time was a full minute slower than Furman’s.
“It’s going to take some time to get after them, but if we can be competitive with them that means we have a chance to get to nationals,” Watts said.
A former distance runner who won four SEC titles himself as a Vol in the mid-1970s, Watts said he’s encouraged by the Boone-Science Hill distance running rivalry that’s been developing over the past few years.
“I think it’s a healthy, positive rivalry, and that makes everyone better,” Watts said.
Don’t look for Watts to ease up on the local recruiting next year. Helping Routh and Charles lead their teams to third (Boone) and fourth (Science Hill) respectively at state last fall were juniors Ben Varghese of Boone and Crigger. The pair finished fourth and seventh at the state championships last fall.
Overall, Watts added, the area’s running culture appears capable of regaining the prominence it had when Johnson City was noted by Runners World as the country’s top running area.
“I’d love to put together a big invitational (cross country) meet that would include both high school and college races,” Watts said. Parking and staging areas are two major hurdles to that, but Watts is on the lookout for a suitable location in the Tri-Cities.