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The first individual to cross the finish line in both the boys and girls races did not reflect the team front-runner in Wednesday afternoon’s first of six 3-A Big East Conference cross country meets over a newly designed 5-kilometer course at Gillette Athletic Complex.
Southern Nash’s boys registered a 1-2 finish with seniors Shamir Small and Hunter Issette, respectively, but with four runners in the top nine, defending champion Northern Nash prevailed.
Small was clocked at 18 minutes, 20 seconds. Issette trailed at 18:25.
The Knights, seeking an eighth straight conference title, amassed 32 points for their top five runners, followed by Southern Nash (65), Hunt (79), Fike (80), Rocky Mount (84) and Franklinton (156).
In the girls race, Northern Nash sophomore Elana Griffin, last season’s Big East Runner of the Year, turned in a dominating performance of 23:14 in outdistancing her nearest challenger by 74 seconds.
However, Rocky Mount, the 2018 runner-up, placed three runners in the top eight in accumulating 37 points.
Paced by the freshman duo of Willa Boyer and Cecilia Johnson, Fike surfaced as the runner-up with 67 points. Then came defending champion Northern Nash (82), Southern Nash (100), Hunt (112) and Franklinton (118).
Of the new course, Hunt junior Caleb Daniels, who placed 12th, noted: “It’s tough — a little bit tougher than the one out here last year. It’s out in the open and really challenges you. It’s a good place to run conference meets.”
Northern Nash head coach Jeff Dodrill described the layout as “less spectator-friendly.”
Out front, Southern Nash’s Issette set the leading pace until the final few hundred yards. Small surged ahead, prevailing by five seconds. The pair noted the pre-race plan was for Small to win. Now, each has won a race this season.
“From now on, we’re going to race,” Small declared.
“It’s about me and him pushing each other,” Small explained, “especially knowing one of the (Northern Nash) guys was right on us. We were trying to build a good lead and then go.”
Noted Issette: “I set the pace for him. I actually went out too fast, but I did all right.”
Each Firebirds runner emphasized the No. 1 concern is “to try to get the team up there with us.”
Dodrill revealed that NCrunners.com has projected Southern Nash to edge his Knights for 2019 conference supremacy. Was Dodrill surpised at Wednesday’s outcome?
“We weren’t supposed to win,” Dodrill responded with a grin. “There are cracks in the armor. We have to do some welding, get it fortified and we’ll be back. A little motivation speech before you start sometimes helps. But it’s not what happens in August and September that counts; it’s Oct. 23 (conference championshi) that counts.”
“Until somebody beats Northern Nash, Northern Nash is No. 1,” Southern Nash coach Eddie Coble declared.
Junior Cisneros Cardenas led Hunt with a sixth-place time of 19:23. Out front for Fike was senior Amando Robles with a 10th-place time of 19:57.
“We have four strong runners and we’re looking for a fifth,” commented Fike head coach Cheryl Gardner. “I’m praying for maybe a third(-place finish).”
The Golden Demons wound up fourth.
Freshman Boyer of Fike surprised her coach with a fifth-place time of 25:38. Gardner anticipated another freshman, Johnson, leading the Lady Demons. She salvaged eighth in 26:48.
“I have been excited all day — it’s a home meet for us,” Boyer said. “I wasn’t really pleased with my time, but for placement, I beat my goal. I have a certain sense of pride and I made myself proud.”
Boyer also realized Johnson was not having a good day.
“I saw she was down and I thought I’ve got to finish for her. I knew she would be OK and I’m glad she’s OK. She’s really, really tough,” Boyer added.
Southern Nash sophomore Jadiza Jimenez, expected to challenge Griffin for league runner of the year, wound up sixth in her 2019 debut with a time of 25:47.
Ladybirds coach Coble reported that Jimenez spent the summer in New York and her conditioning has not returned to peak form.
“I know she’s going to get better,” Griffin remarked. “I need to push myself to stay where I’m at and keep on getting better.”
Hunt’s top performer was senior Carolina Vazquez, also a tennis player, with a seventh-place time of 25:56.
“I know I could have done better,” Vazquez assessed. “I’m not really happy with my time. I know, by the end of the season, I can bump it up.”
A hot, early-season meet influenced slower times, but, of the course, Vazquez commented: “I like it better than the one last year. It’s more of a one-loop thing rather than going around it multiple times.”
Griffin’s complaints were minimal.
“I felt pretty strong the first half,” she reviewed. “But toward the end, I felt like I tapered off. I wanted to get out quick, stay out there and try to build a strong lead the whole way.”
Rocky Mount, forecast to emerge the 2019 conference queen, started strongly behind juniors Zahnetta Wilkins and Clara Lord. Wilkins took second in 24:28, followed by Lord at 24:40. Five Lady Gryphons placed in the top 15.
Rocky Mount runners were not fazed by their bus being involved in a minor accident on London Church Road.
“It was good to see that the kids were able to get here at the last moment, refocus and do what they were able to do,” said 27th-year head coach DeeAnna Davis.
“I’ve got a good pack; we’ve just got to get them faster. Most of the girls running in the second pack are new to this. They’ll progress.”
More progression is anticipated in next Wednesday’s 5 p.m. conference meet at Hunt High.