By Chris Goltermann
Not every athlete is cut out for cross-country, where hard work is often done alone and well out of view.
It’s also a sport where the is strength in numbers and where being the fifth-best makes you the most valuable on your team.
Hence why depth becomes one of the biggest factors of any fall season. It has been for defending county champions East Coweta which had over 90 runners participating in summer workouts.
In other areas, cross-country athletes are dragged, almost kicking and screaming, from the hallways. But the county’s prep programs haven’t been among them, often having to make cuts at the start of the year.
It begins Saturday for at least three local lineups. Both Heritage School and Northgate travel to the Mercy Invitational, while Trinity Christian is headed to the LCA Invitational at Loganville Christian.
East Coweta, with a football opener set for Mercedes Benz Stadium, will get a chance to watch the Indians for one rare Saturday morning before opening its season at the Bob Blastow Early Bird with Heritage School on Aug. 25, while Northgate and Trinity head to the Battle of Atlanta at Nash Farms.
The summer months have already been busy for some programs. Runners at East Coweta logged 14,000 miles over 12 weeks while coming off a sweep of titles at the three-team Coweta Cup meet.
Last year’s respective top runners -- current junior Kyle Harkabus for the boys and graduating senior Miya Dean for girls -- were ranked higher than any other in program history.
East Coweta’s Kyle Harkabus (see related story) is the top returning finisher in Class 7A after a third-place finish. Just as important, all seven top boys runners including Coweta Cup runner-up Logan Ray are back while all running sub 5-minute miles last spring during track season.
“In the history of EC running, the school has only had 12 boys able to run a sub-5 mile and now seven of them are on the same cross-country team,” said community coach Bill Buckalew, who is joined by head coach Valerie Rodriguez and Jody Smith, both avid runners. “So this has generated a lot of excitement.”
The Indians roster includes a majority of juniors and seniors, with Jacob Smith, Jack Cliett and Xavier Church back. Sophomores Logan Ray and Colby Butts continue to push the group, with the latter earning the program’s initial No. 5 ‘medal’ at team time trials to close summer workouts. Newcomer Aidan Rush could equally fit in nicely after playing lacrosse in the spring.
The same trend finds Northgate’s boys, led by head coach Bradley Wilson. Of the Vikings’ top seven runners heading into Saturday’s season opener, six are seniors with Michael Nelson, Sam Wessells and Davis McIntire among a group of seasoned veterans.
“As usual, the success of the team will come down to our fifth man and seeing who steps up for that spot,” Wilson said.
With Matthew Hill, a promising freshman, moving out of state, the important No. 5 spot has a list of candidates including Alex Johnson, Abdul Tabaa, Billy Guilot and Joey Thomas.
“The competition for the last two varsity spots should be fierce this year, which will help the team in the long run,” Wilson said of the Vikings, who placed second to Alexander at last year’s Area 5-6A meet.
Both Heritage School rosters include the return of No. 1 runners. For the Hawks, junior Koby Lord is “expected to be a team leader,” according to coach L.C. Williams.
Boys returners include senior Gray Burkhart along with sophomores Worth Burkhart and Sam Lewis. Freshmen Nathaniel Weinstein, Grant Augustine, Kellson Wall and Charlie Mitchell should also get an opportunity to make a push for the starting lineup along with Andrew Turdik, already an outstanding swimmer for the Hawks.
Brooks Burkhart, just a seventh grader, equally returns with experience on the course at a young age.
Depth may be needed just as much for Newnan and East Coweta in Class 7A, where state qualifying comes in four large Area meets. The schools are joined by 10 other schools, the majority of which from Cobb County.
First-year coach Austin Enriquez arrives at Newnan where the boys team was dominated by underclassmen last fall. Senior Will Thomas was the top Cougar finisher at the Area 2-7A meet and juniors Beck James, Bo Palmer, Bryson Houston and Gray Frederick all had times under the 18-minute mark in a fourth-place finish for the Cougars ahead of East Coweta.
Making the move from the Georgia Independent Christian Association may not be such a big step potentially for Trinity Christian considering the Lions have been taking advantage of bigger meets for several years after the GHSA opened some of its sports to GISA schools for competition, cross-country among them.
The Lions, however, will have to push on following the graduation of Hans Troyer, who finished third at last year’s GISA state meet behind two star runners form Trinity-Dublin.
The graduating class also included Jacob Richardson and David Freeman.
As a freshman, though, Adam Granade closed last year for Trinity with a 10th-place finish at the GISA meet. Michael Freeman also returns for his sophomore year along with Joshua Olson.
Standout Miya Dean graduated after becoming the highest ranked finisher in the history of either of the school’s cross-country programs. At the county meet, however, freshman Shannon Ferry made her mark by winning the individual title while just a second ahead of Dean at the finish.
“She’s gone all-in [with cross-country] this year,” Buckalew said of Ferry, who placed 17th at last year’s Area 2-7A meet, also running just a second ahead of Dean.
Senior Holly Hind enters her final varsity season bringing the same consistency as her first, having scored for the Lady Indians in 23 straight meets dating back to her ninth-grade year.
East Coweta’s girls won the county meet and placed 11th in Class 7A.
Walsh, who is active in the JROTC and has enlisted in the Marines, regularly leads team workouts and finished second in the state’s female fitness competition.
Also returning from last year’s top-five is Sophia Steadman.
The boost on the course this fall may have to come from newcomers including freshmen Megan Carr, Madysen Ben and Jordan Dunn.
Morgan Carr, Megan’s older sister, is also among the mix among 23 newcomers, 14 of which are ninth graders.
Sovi Wellons remains one of the county’s top performers while already entering the fourth of her five potential varsity seasons in the GISA having excelled immediately as an eighth-grader.
Wellons is coming off an 11th-place finish at the GISA state meet last November. The program lost the Lady Hawks’ other top performer, Catherine Hallman, to graduation.
Heritage, however, will have newcomers Amanda Shepperard, a senior, and Catherine Williams, a sophomore, to help bolster the lineup.
The graduation of standout Sydney Tuttle brings as much a rebuild to the Lady Vikings program with a bulk of new faces. There are multiple returners back including Sarah Brummet, Claire Wathen and Dalia Gibson.
A pair of newcomers, Mia Griswold and Hanna Wessells, may be poised to become immediate contributors in the lineup according to Wilson.
Heading into her senior season, Rachel Woods came on strong last fall, placing fourth at the Coweta Cup and 26th at the Area 2-7A meet.
The team also got a boost from All-County soccer standout Alyssa Brauchler as well as another senior, Sydney Hall.
The Lady Lions will benefit from the experience drawn last year from a roster dominated by underclassmen. At the 2017 GISA state meet, Trinity was led by current sophomores Kayleigh Sherrod and Sofia Varela as well as senior Sami Bourque. Faith Robertson enters her junior year while two more sophomores, Bailey West and Hannah Walker, ran with the varsity at end of last year.