The State Champion Dragon Girls and Boys Cross-Country Teams also earn National Program of the Year Honors
For Head Coach Justin Leonard and the Southlake Cross Country team the vision for a glorious state championship season unfortunately came through disappointment. Immediately after his boys finished second and his girls finished third at the 2010 state meet, Leonard gathered his exhausted runners once again at the starting line. In a moving speech he pointed to the line and explained to his runners they were looking at, “the starting line for next year’s state competition.”
The storied girls cross-country team, had taken home 5 state championships between 2001-2008 but had not been able to finish higher than third in state competition since. Running in parallel the burgeoning boys team was gaining individual and team success with the aid of 2007 State Individual Champion Colby Lowe but with the team’s 2nd place finish that day – the boys had yet to break the tape as the state’s best cross-country team.
It was then and there that both teams made a pact to win their very next state meet together.
In this no-cut sport, the team that runs together stays together. Without gender boundaries or the seclusion of pre-varsity and varsity squads each member of the larger team practices together. What follows according to Leonard is a, “family environment full of a great group of kids who care for and root for one another.”
The journey to this state championship was a long and bumpy one full of non-stop training. Whether it was 110-degree heat or rain with 20 mile per hour winds, the 142 members of the boys and girls cross country teams could be found on their training courses. With the leadership of several key veteran runners including senior Jordan Chavez a four year varsity runner, the 2011 cross country teams grew into an what Leonard described as an, “Intense, determined and goal driven group.”
From top to bottom, every runner had bought into the program and after another year of seasoning and hundreds upon hundreds of training miles the Dragons stepped back to the starting line in Round Rock to once again put themselves to the test.
In cross country competition a score of 15 points is perfect – and can only be achieved when a team’s top five runners place first through fifth. In amazing fashion the Dragon boys placed five runners in the top ten on their way to taking home their first state championship. On this day in early November, the Dragon boys also set a 5A state record with a final score of 20. In a span of just 13 seconds Southlake’s top five finishers crossed the 5000 meter finish line in “bang-bang” fashion. Junior Nate Sullivan was the first of five Dragons to consecutively cross at 15:40 followed almost simultaneously (0.2 seconds later) by Ben Golestan. Joe Sansone (15:47) Trevor Gilley (15:51) and Jordan Chavez (15:53) completed the feat, as the five runners took 2nd through 6th place. But the Dragon’s weren’t finished as Alex Johnson (16:07) and Connor Hendrickson (16:25) placed 9th and 13th respectively.
Just as impressive was that the second place team scored 110 points, a testament to the gap the seven Dragons placed between themselves and their competition.
The Lady Dragons had the same success, albeit in a more competitive bout with Humble Kingwood. Junior Courtney Kriegshauser paced the entire girls two-mile meet posting a first place final time of 11:23. Shelby Chapin (11:29), Felice Johnson (11:31) and Julia Sunderland (11:43) finished 5th, 6th and 10th, giving the Lady Dragons four top ten finishers and a team final score of 34 points. Humble Kingwood finished in second place with 48 points. Three more Lady Dragons Rachel Harper (11:47), Allison Naval (11:54) and Sara Roe (12:03) came in 12th, 17th and 24th respectively.
Of the dual championship Leonard said, “It was a great season across the board. I’m very proud of them. Having a team goal for both the boys and girls to win state was a big task and having it pay off for both is awesome.”
Nike Cross Nationals
With the proverbial “monkey off their backs” the teams turned their focus to the Nike Cross Nationals held on December 3rd in Portland, Oregon. Unlike most high school sports where a mythical national champion is crowned, the Nike Cross Nationals have become the national qualifying meet where runners face off head to head.
The event is comprised of 8 Regional Qualifying meets and the National Finals in Portland. Following in the tradition of European cross country meets, the Nationals event featured a multiple loop race course with man-made obstacles built on the inside of the horse race track at Portland Meadows in Oregon. The venue provided a continuous live view of the race
Fields of 22 seven-person clubs and an additional 45 individuals (male and female) laid it all on the line in the quest for the sport's biggest prize, the coveted Winged Goddess of Victory statue and the honor of becoming a true national champion.
Both the boys and girls qualified for the event by placing within the top two at their regional meet. Across the country only 199 male and female runners would compete, and the Dragons were one of only five teams that had the honor of being represented by both of their teams.
Consistent as always, Joe Sansone posted the Dragons first finishing time of 15:47, the same time he had in the state meet. The time was 44 seconds off the lead and good enough for 22nd place across the best runners in the country. Herbert Sullivan (15:59, 45th), Alex Johansson (16:00, 47th), Connor Hendrickson (16:06, 58th), Jordan Chavez (16:07, 63rd), Trevor Gilley (16:26, 93rd), and Ben Golestan (16:36, 117th) had another impressive outing compiling a team time of 79:59 and a score of 95 points. The boys finished in 2nd place nationally by a combined time of just one second to first place finishers Lincroft New Jersey and their team time of 79:58.
With a team total of 95:25 and 207 points the girls finished 7th place nationally. Rachel Harper (18:39, 43rd), Shelby Chapin (18:58, 66th) and Courtney Kriegshauser (19:04, 76th) paced the Lady Dragons.
In the end, the boys and girls combined scores earned them the recognition as the nation’s top running program for 2011. On the feat Leonard commented, “The recognition speaks volumes about the kids in this program. It has been a joy to coach them all and to have so much success together makes it even sweeter.”
With dual wins at state competition and recognition as the Nation’s top program for 2011 the sport of cross-country continues to build its own tradition in Southlake. Over the course of Coach Leonard’s eight years with the program the enrollment has nearly doubled from 80 runners to 142 this year. Success definitely plays a part in it but the true family environment fostered by the coach, the team and its supporters will keep this team running on all cylinders well into the future.