A swan song for XC seniors

The+Boys+Cross+Country+team+posing+at+Regionals.+They+swept+first+place+at+District+and+Regionals+this+year%2C+powered+primarily+by+the+efforts+of+their+senior+runners.

Photo courtesy of Ed Hull

The Boys Cross Country team posing at Regionals. They swept first place at District and Regionals this year, powered primarily by the efforts of their senior runners.

Cross Country athletes finally concluded their lengthy season with the Nike Cross Regionals (NXR), competing in the Southeast regional meet against runners from 11 states, plus the District of Columbia. Even in such a crowded field, it was a phenomenal showing for the program, with a majority of the runners at NXR finishing the five-kilometer course with a personal record (PR). 

“For our very veteran Boys team, [NXR] was a nice way to wind down and have one more fun meet running together,” said Head Cross Country Coach Chris Pellegrini. “They finished 13th out of 22 [teams]. On the Girls side, only 10 teams entered that championship race, so it was a very unusually small field and the Girls placed third out of that field.”

Not every runner could make the trip to run at NXR, but the rest of the Cross Country season was just as remarkable. For the second year in a row, and for the third time in the last four years, both the Boys and Girls teams swept first place at Districts and Regionals, before finishing fourth and third at States, respectively. While the sheer dominance at Districts and Regionals was incredible, for the many senior runners in the program, States still left a bittersweet mark on an otherwise stellar season.

“I feel like I worked really hard and it was definitely a big letdown to see all the hard work I’ve been putting in since July go by the wayside with one bad race,” said senior John O’Donnell. “Definitely an untimely, bad performance on my part. But we’re looking to keep our heads up and just to move past it.”

O’Donnell was one of four senior boys who ran at States, spearheading a group of talented veteran runners in their last year running together. Already a two-time state champion from his role in the 4×800 meter relay last year, O’Donnell’s performance was absolutely crucial towards winning Districts and Regionals, which shouldn’t be overshadowed by the end result at States.

“I think I did as well as I thought I could do [at States], and I definitely did what coach had asked,” said senior Tyler Weeks. “But I mean, Cross Country is a team sport, so I think that’s overwhelmed by the fact that we weren’t able to win, of course. It was a really, really close race. I mean, first and fourth were separated by 20 points.”

None of the Boys state runners were a part of the last State Championship in 2019, although O’Donnell and Weeks were both on the postseason roster as alternates and ran at Districts that year. They both came into their own as juniors and share a unique sense of camaraderie with their fellow seniors.

“Despite our performance on the books, this is the proudest team I’ve been on and I don’t regret anything that happened at the State meet,” said senior Sean Cochran. “And I wouldn’t want to run any race with any other group of guys.”

Frankly, the fact that Cochran was able to run at States is an accomplishment by itself, as he was coming off of offseason shoulder surgery and wasn’t even able to run until September. Nevertheless, he recovered well and managed to set PRs at Regionals and NXR.

“I did not run well at all [at States],” said senior Kyle LaJoye. “We still had a great season; obviously, it [wasn’t] the result we were looking for in the end. It would have been nice to cap it off with a state championship, but [we] got the district and regional title.”

LaJoye’s contributions shouldn’t be overlooked either, since he battled through a banged-up knee and delivered a solid finish. Injuries seemed to derail the tail end of his season, as he later rolled his ankle at NXR and could not finish his final race.

But, even if the Boys team was unable to win a State title or, as many of the boys are more frustrated by, finish ahead of Woodson, that doesn’t discount everything else they accomplished along the way.

“Overall, I’m happy about getting All-State, but there’s always room for improvement,” said junior Henry Anderson. “Ultimate goal [at States] was to win as a team, so that’s what I was most looking forward to.”

Anderson, now in his second year with the team, broke the 16-minute barrier at Districts and Regionals, individually finishing second and third overall in both meets. He was their top finisher at States and NXR, but he, along with several runners in the program, arguably peaked at Regionals, completing that course with a PR of 15:55 that doubled as the season best for a three-mile race. He finished just ahead of O’Donnell, whose finish of 15:57 also constituted a personal best. 

Now, even though States was a slightly longer five-kilometer course, one runner actually finished that course faster than the Regionals course. 

“I think I did pretty good [at States],” said junior Caleb Selph. “I PRed, so that was nice. It was good to finally finish the season with a half-decent race. It sucks to lose, but we got good things along the way.”

Selph, also in his second year with the team, overcame both the terrain challenges and the adjusted mileage, finishing just three seconds behind his fastest three-mile time, despite the five-kilometer course being almost another 200 meters long. He was unable to make the trip to NXR, but still finished his season on a high note.

“I did not run my best, I definitely could have [ran] a bit faster to help the team out [at States],” said junior Nate Austin. “But I did give it all I could, and, you know, I kinda died. You win some, you lose some.”

Austin is in his third year with the overall program, although this was only his second season of Cross Country. Despite not being pegged as a major contributor at the start of the year, he is now beginning to blossom into a star runner, like Selph.

Startlingly, the postseason success of the Boys Cross Country team can be attributed entirely to upperclassmen, as, even within the expanded field of District runners and alternates, no freshmen or sophomores cracked the roster. Whether this trend actually spells doom for the future of the program is difficult to say, however.

“Boys tend to take a little bit longer to develop into high-level runners, so it’s more common that your better runners on the Boys side are juniors and seniors,” said Pellegrini. “We have a large program and a good culture, so I feel like over the course of this next year we can develop that next round of kids to kind of come in and sweep that place.”