By Jeff Keeling
It’s going to be all about pack running and closing the gaps between teammates as University High’s cross country teams work to improve on 10th and 9th place 2015 state finishes this fall, head coach Maggie Whitson said.
With a passel of returning runners on both squads, Whitson feels good about the teams’ chances to improve on last year’s results at the A-AA state championships. “I think that the girls and the boys have an opportunity to be back on that line and to improve on what they did at state last year,” said Whitson, who is in her second year as head girls coach and first as head boys coach.
The Bucs got a solid early-season look at where they stack up so far on Saturday, posting fourth (girls) and fifth-place results at the Run For the Hills meet at South Holston Dam.
“I was very happy with where we ran up front on both the girls’ and boys’ side,” Whitson said Saturday afternoon. Indeed, the Bucs were the top-finishing smaller school at the meet, where Daniel Boone’s boys and Science Hill’s girls won team titles.
On a hot morning and a tough course, the boys team saw sophomore Porter Bradley medal with a seventh-place finish (17:28), while junior Pablo Rivas was 17th in 18:16. For the girls, junior Bekah Owen was 12th in 22:31 and sophomore Ali Burns was 21st in 23:17.
The girls team finished one place ahead of Elizabethton, a squad that finished fifth at state last fall in A-AA. Cross country meets are scored adding up the places of the top five runners, though, and after Burns the gap Saturday was 1:25 to third runner, junior Cora Alison, who was 36th in 24:42, and another minute to junior Ashley David and freshman Camilla Rivas, both of whom crossed the line in 25:39.
“The girls worked hard to try and keep each other in sight, but I wasn’t happy with the gaps we had,” Whitson said. “That’s something we need to bring together, and they know that.”
The meet results showed the all-important 1-5 split between each team’s fastest runner and its fifth finisher, and the results certainly seemed to buttress Whitson’s argument about where her teams need to improve. The split for the boys team was 3:56 – a wider range than any of the top 10 teams. Fourth place Science Hill’s split was 2:38, and champion Daniel Boone – despite a blazing 16:02 winning time by Ben Varghese that was a full 37 seconds ahead of runner up Alex Crigger of Science Hill – had a gap of just 2:15 between Varghese and its fifth place runner, Connor Loyd.
The girls 1-5 split was 3:09, which was wider than that of the three teams that finished ahead of the Bucs. It was far better than Elizabethton’s 6:09 split, though, and Rivas’ 37th was a full 19 spots better than Elizabethton’s fifth runner, more than providing the three-point margin between the teams.
While Whitson reckons that the girls biggest impediment at this point is conditioning and that teammates mostly need to continue getting in solid mileage, the boys are a different story – at least judging by Saturday, she said.
“On the boys side I think it’s mental. We can’t get to two miles (of a 3.1-mile race) and put on the brakes – it’s time to go at mile two.”
Saturday, after Bradley and Rivas the gap was a full 1:36 back to sophomore Caleb Strickler, who was 41st in 19:52. Colin Daniel (20:23, 51st) and Nick Pohlgeers (21:23, 80th) rounded out the scoring.
Despite both teams’ experience – freshman Camilla Rivas is the only one of the 10 scorers Saturday who didn’t run at the 2015 state meet – the Bucs remain young and potentially prepped for a multi-year run. That is in spite of the boys’ top 2015 runner, Jeb Jones (12th overall at state) transferring to Science Hill for his sophomore season.
Bradley, who was 29th at state last year, is clearly the boys’ top runner, Whitson said, though he has a strong supporting cast. In addition to Saturday’s runners, it includes freshman Will Owen. She expects Greeneville to provide the stiffest competition in the region on the boys’ side.
“Porter was hurt most of the season last year (broken arm),” Whitson said. “He put in a really good summer of running, and we would like to see him get on the podium (top 10 at state). He wants to be there, and I don’t see why he couldn’t be if he works hard and stays healthy.”
Whitson expects Bekah Owen, Burns and Alison to push each other for the top girls spot, and believes all three have the ability to post top-10 individual finishes at regionals. The trio are supported by Daniel, Rivas, sophomores Grace McLean and Julia Gabel, and freshman Anna Davidson.
“From a small school perspective, both my boys and my girls were competitive within their region,” Whitson said after Saturday’s meet. “My goal for them right now is to work as a team to be stellar in October.”