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Four for 4

Feb 20, 2015 03:52PM ● Published by Dia

by Kevin Haslam with special contributions from Laurie Kemps

 Carroll’s boys cross country squad won the state title for the fourth consecutive year, while the girls placed fourth despite losing a key runner.

Getting to the state championship in any high school sport can be challenging. Placing in the top five, or even winning it all, is an enormous accomplishment. But creating and keeping that tradition year after year is a much tougher task.

Despite some surprises, setbacks and challenges, the Southlake Carroll cross-country teams enjoyed successful 2014 seasons, each returning from championship 2013 seasons. Training hard and winning often, both squads showed depth, fought fierce competitors and kept focused on reaching their goals this season, according to Laurie Kemps, who handled the teams’ public relations this year.

The boys celebrated many first-place finishes throughout the season, winning both the district and regional titles en route to winning their fourth consecutive state championship.  It was a hard-fought battle in which they captured the gold by scoring just 11 points more than their closest competition.

“It was very fulfilling this year coming into it,” says Head Coach Justin Leonard, who has coached both teams for seven years. “You always talk about how it’s a new group, and trying to get everybody to come together. It felt like we had the pieces to win our fourth this year.”

Coming in, the boys were without two of last season’s best runners. Jacob Pickle and Connor Hendrickson graduated and are now both competing at the University of Texas. Leonard says the team had to overcome the adversity of knowing they wouldn’t have the same top runners at the state meet. 

“It was more of a team-type of win this year,” he says. “Some years, you’re fortunate to have two to three people get in top 10 of states and know runners four and five are good enough to finish it off. This year, we needed all seven. Losing those guys was tough, but we were able to rally and get it done.”

The key to the boys’ success was focusing not on the top seven runners, but on the top 10, according to Leonard. In 2014, a new group of seniors stepped up to create a cohesive unit, including Eli Canal (who has committed to Texas A&M), Luke Lanham, Johnny Kemps, Ansel Richards and Eric Karl.

“Those boys [the graduating seniors]—in all the years I’ve coached, I’ve never been around such a unique and special group of young men,” says Assistant Coach Niki Gilley, who celebrated 21 years with the district and five with the cross country team this year.

“They are quirky and funny, but some of the hardest working individuals I’ve ever been around,” Gilley continued. “They’re also a quiet bunch. I wouldn’t say, ‘quiet but deadly,’ but somewhere along those lines. They’re silent in that they go out and do their job, and you almost forget they’re there sometimes. No matter how fast or slow a freshman comes in, [the seniors] made sure [the freshmen] were trying and doing their best.”

Gilley says the seniors led by example, doing little things, like stretching, core exercises, being at practice, eating healthy and even carpooling with underclassmen.

Junior Michael Waugh helped round out the team, stepping up from his No. 10–11 role during the regular season to a varsity spot in regionals. He was the team’s No. 6 in the state meet and the No. 5 guy in the Nike Regionals competition.

Shea Watley, Timou Torre, Reed Brown and Charlie Gardner also get praise from the head coach, who served his 11th year in the district this year. 

“Every year, you go through your ups and downs and battle through a couple of things, but it was fulfilling to be able to get it done,” Leonard says about the state competition. “It’s hard to win one, but to do it four years in a row is spectacular. We had the kids to do it, and all the pieces fell into place toward the end of the year, so we were fortunate in that aspect.”

The boys went on to win the Nike Regionals competition and were invited to participate in the Nike Cross Nationals meet in Portland, Ore., where they placed 19th overall.

“It’s such a unique experience to gather some of the most elite runners of the country together in one location,” Gilley says. “It’s a common ground. All the athletes get to compete against other highly trained athletes as well. Not only that; they meet professional athletes, and Nike takes them behind the scenes and talks about what it takes to be successful.”

Competitors had the opportunity to attend sessions and dinners with professional athletes, as well as chances to interact with other top performing high school runners.

“The people that run Nike are always there trying to make it the best experience for the kids,” Gilley says. “They try to set them apart and reward them for their efforts throughout the year. It’s evident from treating them as soon as they get off the plane to meeting them—little things, like making sure their names are on bags and cards—and it’s amazing, the time and effort Nike puts in to make sure each child feels special and unique.”

Leonard says a very small fraction of runners across the country get to compete in that caliber of a meet, 0.21 percent to be exact, and while the 2014 meet wasn’t the team’s best performance, it was a big one.

“For me, it was a great way for the seniors to cap off their careers and everything they’ve done while in high school here,” he says.

 The competition in the girl’s field this season was intense. Despite losing junior Antigone Archer—a top runner for the Dragons—this season due to injury, the girls took top honors at the district meet and qualified for the state meet where they took fourth place.

Leonard says the girls came in with a lot of unknowns, and after barely qualifying for regionals, winning fourth at the state meet was a huge accomplishment. He lauded senior Rianna Randolph for stepping up big in 2014. As a freshman, she was 72nd on the girls team in districts. This year, she was the Dragons’ No. 1 runner.

“She made huge strides and progressed throughout her career,” Leonard says. “Coming in, we didn’t know if she was going to be on varsity, but she was consistent all year. It was a huge breakthrough for her.”

In states, Gilley says four of the seven girls ran the fastest times they have ever run, which was “amazing.” 

Overall, both coaches noted the outstanding contributions and support from the community.

“The community of Southlake makes quite a statement when 150 kids are running around the streets,” Gilley says. “They’re always looking out for them and making sure they’re OK. It’s good having those extra set of eyes always out there.”

“The main thing is the parents’ support that we get year after year,” Leonard says. “It’s a huge part of it. The support of the community and schools allows us to do what we do. We get a buy-in from the kids, and everybody else lets us do what we do. It really helps. It’s a huge component into it all.”

2014 at a Glance

 

Boys

Greenhill 6-Mile Relay 2nd, 3rd

Marcus 1 Invite 1st

Southlake Invite- 2nd

Javelina XC Invite 1st

Nike South 1st

Clovis XC Invite 4th

District 7-6A 1st

Region 1-6A 1st

State 6A Championships 1st

Nike Regionals 1st

Nike Nationals 19th


Girls

Greenhill 6-Mile Relay 1st

Marcus 1 Invite 2nd

Southlake Invite 1st

Javelina XC Invite 1st

Nike South 2nd

Clovis XC Invite 9th

District 7-6A 1st

Region 1-6A 4th

State XC 6A Championships 4th

Nike Regionals 5th

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