As the cross country season kicks off in Tennessee, every
team and every runner has expectations and goals for how the next few months
will go. At Signal Mountain High School
and Chattanooga Christian School, those expectations are a little bigger than
Signal Mountain's cross country program had possibly the most successful season of any school in the state. The girls won the Division I Small School state title by more than 50 points and the boys finished third. For perspective on the girls' victory, even if they had dropped their top two runners and included their team's sixth and seventh best finishers, they still would have won by 26 points.
While expectations remain high on both teams, the girls graduated three seniors while the boys lost four. However, the girls' team returns a slew of impressive young runners, along with one very talented senior.
"We had several seniors last year and we're starting with a younger group this year," Eagles coach Dustin Carpenter said. "There are several freshmen on the team that are very talented. I'm just trying to teach them the right way with the routine we go through. If we just focus on doing all of the little things right, the big stuff will take care of itself at the end of the season."
The Lady Eagles are led by their lone senior, Mattie Parker, who finished third in 2017 with a time of 21:27. Parker's leadership and work ethic are extremely important to Carpenter with such a young team.
"The girls love to work hard together and to include each other," said Carpenter. "It was that way when Mattie was included with the older girls when she was a freshman, and now she's passing that torch on, and that's fantastic."
"It's always nice to beat the other runners, but my focus is on winning as a team instead of individually," Parker said. "People always ask why we run. My answer is that it's not because of the running. It's because of the people and the relationships."
One of the dynamic freshmen the Eagles have returning is Tara Jessen, who finished ninth in a time of 22:24 as an eighth-grader last season and followed that up with a phenomenal track season.
"Even as an eighth-grader I always wanted to be up there with the seniors and help lead the team," Jessen said. "Now that I have a year of experience, I want to do that more. Sometimes during the summer when not everyone was here, I felt the responsibility to step up as a leader, so I definitely feel more experienced than a typical freshman might."
Jackson Lillard is the lone senior on the boys' team. Lillard finished 31st last year at the state meet, but had a breakout track season, and hopes to build on the training he has put in over the past year.
"I'm looking forward to seeing what we can do as a team in both cross country and track," Lillard said. "Since there are a lot of people gone, there are some big shoes to fill and big expectations to live up to. There are a bunch of new guys that are eager to run, and I think we have a good mix of guys. I see a lot of potential in the team."
Even though there are a lot of new faces on the boys' team, Carpenter is hoping that the work they put in during the summer will pay off now that the season has begun.
"During the summer we mainly just work on base miles," Carpenter said. "A lot of our kids just finished with track, so we give them a little break to rest their legs before getting back to just aerobic running and building up miles."
Beyond their success as a team, Carpenter knows how much cross country helps provide strong friendships that last far beyond high school.
"This sport really brings about great relationships," said Carpenter. "These kids, the ones that have been doing it for four or five years, they build lifetime friendships. They'll keep up with these guys and girls for the rest of their lives."
The reigning Division II-A state champion Chattanooga Christian boys' team is stacked again this year, but doesn't want to rest on the success of last year's campaign.
CCS boys' coach Daniel Russell said that teaching the value of team is at the forefront of everything they do, and that his athletes have taken full ownership of that concept, as well as the goals they've set.
"Our first word in our list of five core values is unity," Russell said. "We structure our practices around that. When we got together, we said we wanted to make a statement as a group of 24 guys. The goal for the team that they set themselves is for the top ten to be under 17:30 and the top five to be under 16:30. Because they set that goal and we didn't, they've latched to it pretty hard."
The Chargers' top runner, junior Edimo Ninterestse, is coming off a second-place finish with a time of 17:02 at the state meet as a sophomore, and is the top returning runner from 2017. Yet Russell said Ninterestse's role as a leader and encourager is just as important, and something that stands out above his physical accomplishments.
"Edimo cares as much about the bottom guy and is just as encouraging to him as his number two runner on the team," said Russell. "There's not a whole lot of teaching that goes into that; they've got that pretty well."
CCS lost only one runner to graduation from last year's varsity team, returning two seniors in Joshua Richardson and Matthew Adams, who finished 13th and 14th respectively, along with juniors Ninterestse and Chase Manton and sophomores Jonathan Kapic and Jack Cottrell.
The Chargers' girls, who finished sixth in 2017, might be young, returning four just sophomores, but their experience last year both throughout the season and at the state meet, along with their friendship off the track, have them poised to take the next step as a team in 2018.
"During our preseason, we went to cross country camp at Berry College," girls coach Lily McKee said. "We did a three-mile run uphill, and at the top we had them write down goals that they wanted to accomplish for the season. Theirs were to perform well at region and spend more time with each other away from running."
The Lady Chargers are led by Phoebe Moran, who finished 14th in the state meet last season in just under 22 minutes. The other returning varsity runners are Lizzie Ross, Allie Gilliam, and Riley Anand.
McKee said that while they have long-term goals, they also focus on short-term goals for each meet, which are also led by the athletes.
"We set individual meet goals, but we like to have our athletes make their own," McKee said. "I personally like to have them give me the goal so that they know it's not an unrealistic expectation being placed on them by their coach. It's something they want to reach, which gives them more incentive to hit it."
"We even had a girl organize a group text that paired the girls up," McKee added. "Each girl would send two goals to their partner to help hold them accountable. We just have a good group of kids that really care about each other and care about the sport."