CROSS COUNTRY: The 2017 Walker County Cross Country Runners of the Year

Walker County Boys’ Runner of the Year: Jasper Wilson (Jr.) and Walker County Girls’ Runner of the Year: Gracie O’Neal (Soph.) - Gordon Lee

Gordon Lee’s Jasper Wilson and Gracie O’Neal came into the 2017 season as two of the top cross country runners in Walker County and neither did anything over the course of the season to disprove it.

Today, it comes as little surprise that the duo is being honored as the Boys’ and Girls’ Cross Country Runners of the Year for the county.

Wilson, who had a breakout season as a sophomore, turned it up even more notches this past fall.

His 16:52 at Ridge Ferry in Rome in the season’s very first race set a new GL school mark and he consistently was a top five runner at most meets he ran in all season long.

Wilson placed first in the Fast Break Challenge at Heritage (17:19) and was second at the Run at the Rock meet in Cartersville (17:28). He went on to break his own school-record with a 16:50 at the Front Runner Championships at Baylor before following up with a 17:13 at Darlington to win the region title.

He finished the season with an 18:29 at the Class A Public School state meet on a tough Carrollton High School course, good enough to take home the state second-place trophy and help the Trojans place second in the team standings. Wilson finished the season with an average time of 17:26, shaving approximately 1:30 of his average from a year ago.

“It feels good to win (the award),” he said. ‘I worked hard in the off-season and it all paid off. I put in a lot more miles over the summer because I knew I had to build as much endurance as I could to get ready for the season.”

Wilson said he felt his workouts were a lot more consistent this past off-season, which in turn led to more consistent times in the fall.

“Jasper puts in a lot of extra hard work,” Gordon Lee head coach Nathan Burns said. “He loves to put in the extra work and he loves bringing others along to run with him, so he’s a leader in that way too. He really influences the others because of his passion for running.

“He’s already running at a high level, but he’s not content. When he breaks a record, he wants to break it again. It’s all about his desire to get better and he always wants to get better and better.”

With the Trojans set to graduate just one senior, Wilson believes his team has the potential to win it all next season, while he says he is personally driven to finish one spot higher at state as a senior.

“Crossing the line second (at state) is all the motivation I need,” he explained. “I think I may have peaked a little too early (this past season), so I’ll have to change it up for next year so I’m ready come November. And if we all put in the work together and get a good top seven, I think next year will be our year.”

“I think he has the potential to get into the 15-minute range,” Burns added. “He’s already a great runner for Class A, but I think he can get to the point where he can compete with anyone at any level.”

There isn’t much that O’Neal hasn’t already accomplished in her brief high school career, but her incredible sophomore campaign this past fall has given her an even higher bar to shoot for over the next two years.

After averaging a very respectable 24 minutes in limited races as a freshman, O’Neal served notice in the season’s first meet that 2017 would be different.

She blistered the Ridge Ferry layout in 18:19, believed to be the fastest time ever for any female high school cross country runner in Walker or Catoosa County history. And while she never cracked the 19-minute mark the rest of the season, she came close on a number of occasions.

O’Neal ran a 19:03 at Baylor to place second overall and won the region title with a 19:20 at Darlington. She had a runner-up finish at the Run at the Rock and won her first state championship with a time of 20:23 in Carrollton, besting her closest competitor in the Class A Public School field by two minutes.

Later, the super-talented athlete went on to place third in the Sophomore Girls’ Division at the Front Runner regional meet in Charlotte, N.C. and still managed to help the Gordon Lee volleyball team win 30 games and advance to the state playoffs.

“It’s great (to win the award), but the glory isn’t mine,” O’Neal said humbly. “It all belongs to the Lord. He is the one that got me here and led me through it. It’s not my own ability.”

She said getting to spend the summer actually training as a runner taught her a lot about what she could do.

“Last year, I just decided to run cross country at the end of volleyball season,” she explained. “But this year I actually got to train and work and get more into (the sport) during the summer. I was able to find out what I could really do and find my true talent and potential. It made a difference.”

“Gracie is just a very, very hard worker,” Burns added. “She was in the 24-minute range last year and she wasn’t even practicing (cross country) because of volleyball. She just came in and ran meets with us when she could. But she’s really fallen in love with running now and she puts in countless hours of practice. Like Jasper, she has a deep passion for it.”

Now with an individual state championship in cross country to go with the 1,600-meter title she won in spring track as a freshman, Burns believes “the sky is the limit” for his standout.

“She’s got that drive to get better and it wouldn’t surprise me if she was (consistently) in the 18-minute range next year,” he added. “Maybe even close to 17 (minutes).”

“I’m never satisfied with anything,” O’Neal added. “I can always improve and next year I’m going to work in the off-season and work this next track season to try and improve even more if I can for next year.”