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As far as the team standings are concerned, the latest round of North Carolina High School Athletic Association realignment did nothing to change the cross-country pecking order in the 3-A Big East Conference.
With Franklinton inserted into the league in place of 2-A Nash Central, Northern Nash looked every bit the favorite to win its sixth consecutive conference championship in the boys division and second straight in the girls ranks following Wednesday’s second 2017 Big East meet at Hunt High.
But on an individual basis, the Warriors boasted the firepower to compete at the top of the conference.
Junior Isabel Reed turned a 30-second loss in last week’s opening Big East race at Gillette Athletic Complex into a 35-second win over Northern Nash’s Mackenzie Proctor, and Hunt senior Renzo Cieza produced a second-place finish to lead the Warriors to a pair of third-place finishes in their respective races.
Reed turned in a winning time on her home course in 21 minutes, 28 seconds, while Cieza’s 17:51 was 57 seconds behind the pace set by Northern Nash’s Jordan Richardson in 16:54.
Northern Nash outpointed Rocky Mount in the boys division 31-67 by placing all five of its scoring runners in the top 12. Hunt followed behind Cieza with 74 points as Fike (86), Franklinton (117) and Southern Nash (148) rounded out the field. The Golden Demons picked up a seventh-place run from Amando Robles, a sophomore, in 19:06.
In the girls race, Northern Nash breezed to victory, putting seven runners in the top 11 to finish with 25 points. Hunt’s 61 followed as Rocky Mount (76), Fike (93) and Franklinton (118) provided the rest of the team scores. Southern Nash only fielded three runners in the girls race and did not qualify for a team score.
First-year member Franklinton will host the third Big East meet of 2017, scheduled for next Wednesday.
TURNING THE TABLES
After finishing second to Northern Nash’s Proctor in their last two races, Reed had different ideas on her home course.
She emerged from the woods on the Hunt course for the third and final time and entered the track for the final stretch with no one in sight. Once she crossed the line, Hunt coach Rusty Boyette tricked her into thinking she had achieved a personal best before informing her of a 21:28 time — still 25 seconds off her career best. A dip into the 20s, an intended 2017 goal, would net the PR.
However, Boyette’s jabbing was all in good fun after a win. Reed has a habit of looking at her watch to check her course time, which Boyette is trying to break.
“I think I just changed how my mindset was,” Reed said of her performance Wednesday. “Because I felt like today, if I put my mind to it, I could really get a positive attitude and just keep it positive all the way through.”
Positivity has a hallmark for Reed since the injury-laden end of her freshman year, where she slogged through a disastrous last-place showing in the 1,600-meter run on Fike’s track at the NCHSAA 3-A East Regional. Her time of 6:25.25 was well off the next-to-last finisher, leaving plenty of time to be embarrassed entering her junior year and the return to the cross-country circuit.
“I got last,” she recalled. “It was just the embarrassment. And so I said, I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m experienced. I’m going to put my mind to it and be positive and get out there and do my best.”
Indeed, tuning out the distractions has been a key to improved race performance.
“She likes running with her music and looking at her watch,” Boyette said of Reed. “I tried the other day, we had a practice where they weren’t allowed to wear watches or listen to their music and just run. I think she gets too caught up sometimes on what her times are, and I think that she’s getting better at that.”
But Boyette isn’t going to argue with an end result such as Wednesday.
“It’s something we work on just so she can focus more on running,” Boyette said. “But I’m not going to fault her for it. Like I used to tell (former Big East champion) Lauren (West), if Lauren came out here and did cartwheels at practice but still won every race, I wasn’t going to find fault with her because you’re still winning every race.”
Freshman Jessica Avery had the top individual run for Fike, finishing seventh in 23:34. Junior Olivia Pearce was 12th, crossing the line in 25:01 to set a new personal best by one second. The Lady Golden Demons were without one of their primary runners in freshman Parker Barnes due to injury.
“I think I ran really good,” Pearce said. “I didn’t think I was going to have a lot of energy each mile, but I progressed every mile. I didn’t want to stop, but my plan was to PR by whatever I could, and I did by a second!
“I don’t think we did as good as we wanted to,” Fike coach Greg Yarbrough said. “But the girls, we’re down our No. 2 runner (Barnes) and our No. 3 runner had a cramp today and it was very difficult. I looked at the places, and I had quite a few of them move up in their standings in conference. On the girls side, that looked really good.”
CIEZA THE DAY
While Cieza sees catching Northern Nash’s Richardson as a tall order by season’s end, he ascended one spot from last week’s meet at Gillette.
“It’s a tough course,” Cieza said of the Hunt terrain. “It’s definitely not a place where you’re probably going to PR. But I think it was fun; it was pretty fast. As a team, we didn’t have two of our top guys finish. So team scoring wise, we probably didn’t do as well. But overall, we’ve improved as a team a lot.”
Cieza has his eyes set on claiming the Wilson County boys championship, set for Oct. 2 on the campus of Wilson Christian. But to do it, he’ll have to find a way to get by two-time defending county champion Christian McFarland on his home course.
As a team, Hunt was set back by cramping issues, particularly to senior Josiah Wattenbarger and sophomore Chelear Forbes. Forbes was coming off a fifth-place showing in the conference opener last week. Junior James Staton sat out so as to not risk further injury after overstretching Tuesday. Boyette felt his team at full strength would have seized second place and feels a healthy Hunt roster has the chance to dethrone the Northern Nash dynasty later in October.
“It’s going to be a hard battle, but I think we have a chance, possibly, to get Northern by the end of the year,” Boyette forecast.
Junior Miguel Tovar had a 10th-place showing for Hunt in 19:36.
Robles and his seventh-place effort led the way for fourth-place Fike, which saw limited return from the “lucky penny” of Yarbrough. The Fike coach told a tale of last time the Demons ran at Hunt, where Yarbrough picked up a lucky penny on the ground. Afterwards, most everyone who touched it walked away with a new PR.
But the coin affixed to Yarbrough’s clipboard wasn’t so magical this time.
“A lot of my kids play soccer and had one or two games this weekend and were tired,” Yarbrough said. “I think the lucky penny worked, but right now we’ve just got to buckle down.”
Southern Nash, which finished sixth in the boys race, got a 14th-place run from sophomore Shamir Small as the highlight for the Firebirds.
“As far as the guys go, I tell them we might not catch Northern,” Firebirds coach Eddie Coble said. “But if we keep getting better each and every week and keep working hard in practice, we may slip up to second place. But you’ve got to keep working.”
Outside of Boyette’s optimistic target, Big East boys cross-country appears to be mired in a silver-medal competition again.