By Jeff Keeling
Science Hill’s cross country teams are looking strong after fifth- and sixth-place finishes at last fall’s state championships, and the boys already are gunning for at least a top three state finish this November.
On a muggy Friday morning as several dozen runners trained at the VA and in the woods behind East Tennessee State University, Head Coach Jennifer Brockett sounded confident in both the boys and girls’ depth.
“The boys were fifth two years in a row, so they are absolutely determined not to be fifth,” Brockett said. “They’re looking at top three. We lost one senior (Bradley Tongco) from that squad and we’ve kind of reloaded. The boys have been really, really serious since track season, so it looks good.”
The Hilltopper girls were the region’s dominant team last year, but the boys played a fairly distant second fiddle to Daniel Boone as the Trailblazers captured their first team state championship since 1998. Boone lost its top two runners in state champion Adam Barnard and James Garst, who finished third at state, while Science Hill returns its top two runners from last year, Noah Charles and Alex Crigger.
While she expects great things out of that duo, who finished 12th and 13th in the scoring at state last year, Brockett said the key to a shot at a state title comes from another source.
“They know to score well at state you have to be packed together,” Brockett said. “So they’re wanting to do their training runs together and stay connected instead of separating out.”
Last fall, Tongco was 40th in the scoring, while then-juniors Harrison Barrett and Malick Gemechu were 55th and 60th to round out the scoring. The other varsity runners from state, Josh Simpson and Alex Grejeda, also return as seniors this year.
By contrast, Boone had Josh Routh, a senior this year, place fourth, Ben Varghese 17th and Mitch Bronstetter 22nd in the scoring. Second-place Brentwood’s lowest-scoring runner finished 18th.
“The girls the year we won state were a pack,” Brockett said. “It makes a huge difference when it’s not about your one, two person, it’s all about your three-four-five guys.” A senior-laden Hilltopper girls team placed its top five in second, sixth, ninth, 14th and 19th in winning the 2008 state title.
“If they want to get to that next level, they’re going to have to focus on the team,” she said.
That’s the approach Charles is taking for his senior year. “The goal for the team is to get runner-up or first, if we can,” he said before the morning workout. “Personal goals, I just want to do the best I can, show out for my team.”
Brockett said Charles has taken a freshman who “could potentially make some noise,” Thomas Seeley, under his wing. “Noah has taken it upon himself to mentor and kind of prepare and get him to focus earlier. Noah didn’t do that and he kind of regrets it took him that long to get focused, so he’s trying to instill that in the younger athletes.”
For his part, Charles – who said he hopes to earn a scholarship and run in college – predicted Seeley would be a contributor even this season. He also forecast that Boone, while they return some good runners and are reloading with some promising freshman, will get dethroned by the Toppers this year. “I’ll say, ‘experience over newbies,’” Charles said.
Many of the runners are at a weeklong camp near Asheville, N.C. this week, and that’s where Brockett said the girls are likely to set their goals. They return their top six runners. Halle Hausman was sixth last year at state and Lydia Lee was 17th. Casey Miller and Katie Simpson were 64th and 65th, while Gabrielle Mardis and Sarah Fleckenstein were 73rd and 74th. Only Lee, Fleckenstein and Simpson are seniors this year.
Next week: News and Neighbor previews defending state champion Daniel Boone.