Div. II-AA Cross Country Preview: Chattanooga Area

As the calendar approaches September, the 2018 high school cross country season is now in full swing in Tennessee as teams begin competing in their first meets of the season. Over the next few days, I will preview a few teams from the Chattanooga area that look to have an impact on the statewide landscape, beginning with the Division II-AA girls and boys.

The cream of the crop for the girls in 2017, not only in the area but also statewide, was Girls Preparatory School, who edged out Brentwood Academy by six points to take home the state title. The team graduated two seniors, Carley Braman and Kate Thel, with Braman finishing as the state runner-up to Brentwood's Meredith Helton.

While it's always difficult to lose such a key contributor, GPS sophomore Jane Eiselstein hopes to step up to fill those shoes this season. Eiselstein finished fourth at the state meet last season, and enters 2018 as the top returner with all three that finished ahead of her having graduated.

"I really want to do well and live up to the potential I have," said Eiselstein. "But I also love being supportive of my teammates. So many on our team are younger, and I love watching them progress throughout the season as they get faster and supporting them through that."

Even though she's a sophomore, Eiselstein is a veteran compared to many of the faces on this year's team. GPS had two eighth graders on the varsity team last year, one of whom was Emmy Richey.  Now a freshman, she feels like her experience last year will give her confidence going into this season.

"I feel like I have an advantage having already run the state course and some of the races with the high school team," Richey said. "Having that experience gives me a little boost."

"We just have to see where we are compared to last year," said Brianna House, one of only three seniors on the team. "Last year we had a small team, and we have a much bigger team this year so I'm hoping that will be help us."

First year coach Katie Outlaw believes that even though her team is young, her girls have an advantage in how close they are, not only as teammates, but also as friends.

"The freshman are a really close group; they all ran together in middle school," said Outlaw, who was their coach on the middle school team prior to taking the high school position. "I think that's a huge advantage.  The older girls are used to a different coach, so we're learning how to integrate what we want to do with what has been done."

Balancing team goals with individual goals is important, but assistant coach Kevin Huwe said that both goals work hand-in-hand.

"A lot of your individual goals are tied to the same team goals, so they're complimentary," said Huwe, who is also in his first year, having coached the middle school team last year as well. "A lot of this for me is trying to figure out the individuals and their personalities, and then tailor that to each athlete's goals."

"This team is highly motivated," Outlaw added. "They enjoy the team and relationship aspect of things. We have a lot of young girls that we get to mold, and I'm excited."

The importance of team over the individual was a theme that was prominent for the Baylor girls' team and their head coach Heather Ott.  The team mantra is a quote that Steve Prefontaine commonly used as the closing at his youth camps and clinics, but with a little twist.

            "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift."
                                                -Steve Prefontaine

"This team is the gift," Ott told her girls at the beginning of the season.

"The expectation is that you put on that Baylor jersey, and that you represent your school and your team and your teammates," Ott added. "What we're working on right now is just mental toughness.  Anybody can be positive on a day that is 70 degrees and it feels good. The real physical and mental toughness that works for you during competition happens on days like today when it's hot and uncomfortable."

Sophomore Grace Pippin echoed Ott's emphasis of training for the mental aspect of running when she talked about her goals for the season.

"I want to be mentally engaged and have a more positive mindset so I can work with my teammates to accomplish our goals for the season, and to be there for them like they are for me," Pippin said.

Baylor, who finished fourth at last year's state meet, did not graduate anyone from the varsity team. Led by sophomore Emrick Garrett, who finished sixth and has the second-fastest returning time, the Raiders also return seniors Sydney Cansler and Merrit Newton, who, along with Pippen, all finished in the top 25 and are primed to have big seasons. Janie Pippenger, also a sophomore, had a breakout track season last spring, running a personal best 2:19 in the 800 meters.

Baylor also has a few new faces this season in eighth-grader Helen Webb, who was very impressive at the two-miler the Raiders hosted for a few area schools for their season opener. The team also added junior Emmy Davis, a transfer from Signal Mountain that Coach Ott recently found out was eligible for this season.

"We have goals for every meet, and goals for every practice and every run honestly," said Newton, the team's captain. "But the overall goal is to win state, and we feel we can be in the hunt."

On the boys' side, the area team to beat over the past few seasons has been the McCallie Blue Tornado.  McCallie finished second at the state meet to perennial state power Brentwood Academy. While Brentwood is returning most of the team that had four of the top five finishers at last year's state meet, Blue Tornado coach Mike Wood feels confident in how his guys have progressed since last season.

"Obviously Brentwood (Academy) is the team that everyone's chasing," Wood said as he watched his team go through an aquatic workout in McCallie's outdoor pool in front of the school. "We think we're a little better this year than we were last year, so that helps. Several of our guys have grown a lot physically since last year, so that's a big advantage."

Coach Wood has a lot of trust in his athletes, choosing to encourage self-accountability in the off-season by giving the players workouts to do on their own.

"We actually didn't have an organized program over the summer," said Wood. "We sent them an A, B, and C plan and told them those were their choices. We checked in on them periodically, but generally speaking we have such a great group of guys who are mature and self-motivated and really do what is going to make them better on their own."

The Blue Tornado only had one graduate from last year's varsity team, returning two seniors and four juniors. Senior Dawson Carmack is the team's top runner, finishing sixth, while Walton Bedell is the other senior.  Both athletes are boarding students, something that Wood said has brought them close as friends and teammates.

The juniors are led by Duke Richey, who finished seventh at last year's state meet, and Samuel Ligon, who had a fantastic track season last spring, finishing sixth in the 1600 and fourth in the 3200 at the Spring Fling. Combined with John Arrowsmith and Dylan Zeller, along with several other athletes hoping to crack the varsity roster, the Blue Tornado are one of the most experienced teams in the state.

Another team looking to improve on their performance from last season is the Baylor boys, who will have a vastly different look due to two members of the 2017 squad graduating and two others deciding not to run. The Raiders do have their core runners returning in juniors Silas Gartman and Sam MacMillan and senior Jackson Collette.

"The main thing I talk to the kids about at the beginning of the year is to just try to get better each year," Baylor coach Bill Gautier said. "Our two seniors started out at 20 minutes when they were freshmen and last year they ran 17 minutes."

The second senior, along with Collette, is Atherton Mook, who is currently injured but looks to be back to running very early in the season.  Mook is looking to build on a very successful junior track campaign as he begins his final prep season.

Coach Gautier also has high hopes for junior Elijah Andrews and freshman Zian Campbell on a fairly thin varsity squad. What the Raiders lack in size, they make up for in quality, and their relatively experienced leaders will be pressed to help develop some of the younger runners as they look to have a successful season.

"We have two seniors, a couple of juniors, a very strong freshman," Gautier said. "We have the right mix to have a strong team. We may not have the depth, but we have the talent, and I want to do well at the end of the year."

Gautier, who coached cross country at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for 25 years, also has a passion to grow the sport throughout the area.

"I really love this sport and I just want to give back," said Gautier. "Success breeds success.  We need to have more meets where there aren't 30 teams so that the kids learn how to race and everybody can get better. It's one of those things where if one team gets better then everybody gets better. The best team is going to win, but I want everybody to be good because then it means something if you win."

Tomorrow I'll preview a couple of smaller schools in Signal Mountain and Chattanooga Christian that have big expectations for the upcoming season.