As cross country season comes to a close, no one can deny the incredible progress the men’s and women’s cross country teams have made since summer training started in July. Starting off preseason ranked around thirtieth in the state for men’s and fourteenth for womens by NC Runners Mile Split, the cross country runners viewed the low rankings as a challenge to beat.
In cross country, the top seven runners on the team make up a varsity group that scores for the team. After an extremely fast group of girls dominated most races last season, four of the top seven graduated, leaving everyone to wonder who would fill their shoes. The men’s team had an identical situation, also losing four of their top seven runners.
During the last week in July, NC Runners released the rankings of the top twenty-five teams by tweeting a team and their ranking each day until they reach the number one ranked team.
“I was kinda dreading [finding out the rankings]; I expected that we weren’t going to be ranked high, but I was hoping that we would at least squeak into twenty-five or twenty-four, somewhere in there. But when they started releasing twenty-five, twenty-four, and twenty-three, I realized we weren’t going to be in there and it was really disappointing,” said Nathan Gamble, Leesville senior and men’s cross country team captain.
The women’s team faced a similar circumstances, feeling that they were ranked much lower than they should have been. But the team, after summer practice the following morning, created a list of team goals set to achieve high — the teams wanted to prove the rankings were much lower than what they were capable of.
The teams faced difficult factors, such as hot temperatures, humidity, and rain throughout most of their season. This ultimately improved their training and tolerance to the conditions when it came to racing in them.
Each week, the training increased in difficulty to prepare for the Cap-8, regional, and state meets. The teams practiced every day after school, rain or shine, and Saturday mornings, if there was not a race, in order to build and maintain their fitness.
Achieving a personal record (PR) is an achievement that every runner struggles to beat; however the men’s team had nineteen out of their twenty returners PR this season, as well as most of their new runners improving from their first to last race.
One of the women’s team goals for the season was to have every runner improve from her first to last race, and with plenty of hard work, they were able to achieve this.
The Cap-8 race allowed the Leesville runners to show their skill against all schools from their conference. The men’s varsity team finished in second place and the women’s varsity team was able to steal first.
In order to advance to states, the teams would have to place in fourth or higher out of the twenty-two women’s teams and twenty-five men’s teams entered in the regional meet. After the race, all the teams waited by the announcer anticipating which teams would be racing at states. The announcer read off the list of teams from last to first place. When it came around to announcing the teams that would be advancing on to the state meet, with much relief to the Leesville men’s team, they won the fourth place spot. The women’s team also would be advancing on to race at the state meet, placing third at regionals.
“I was pretty excited because I wasn’t sure [we would finish in the top four] at first, but our team ran a strong race at regionals. Our team has gone to states every year, so I always have high expectations that we should be able to go to states. But I was happy that we got to continue running,” said Audrey Hemming, Leesville junior and three-year cross country runner.
After incredible amounts of hard work and training to qualify for states, the runners were finally able to. The state meet was held in Kernersville, in near perfect racing conditions. After a tough battle among the top fifteen teams in North Carolina, the women’s team placed fifth and the men’s team placed sixth, respectively. In addition to placing fifth — winning the women’s 4A race — Nevada Mareno, Leesville senior and number one ranked high school cross country runner in the nation, finished her 5K in first place with a time of 17:27.
The men’s cross country team made an incredible improvement from the beginning of the season to the end. Coming into the season not even ranked in the top twenty-five, the men’s team made a massive leap, leaving many teams to wonder how a team ranked thirtieth would come to finish in sixth place at the NCHSAA state meet.
Brent Hale, the Leesville men’s cross country coach, said, “I did not think we would make it all the way to sixth. I didn’t tell the runners that. I knew we would improve, but not by that much. It is incredibly rare for teams to improve by such a large margin.”
By the end of the season, the women’s team was able to improve their ranking by nine places, not only showing they were better than a fourteenth place team, but also proving to themselves that they were stronger than they thought.
As cross country season fades into winter track, the Leesville runners can say that they were able to successfully show their skill after a long season of hard work.