CROSS COUNTRY: Veterans, rookies have Heritage XC teams thinking big

Heritage seniors Jonathan Manion, Dakota Carter, Ryan Craft, Nhan Le, Caleb Boyd, Simon Rhodes, Lilly Black and Skye Remko are hoping to sweep the Region 6-AAAA Championships later this fall. / Scott Herpst

After a Region 6-AAAA runner-up finish on the girls’ side and a fourth-place region showing on the boys’ side in 2017, the Heritage cross country teams are looking to do even better this fall as they gear up for a possible return trip to state.

The 2018 season is already shaping up nicely for the runners from Boynton as the first two meets of the year have given head coach Jeremy Wynne reason to be optimistic.

“We haven't had a lot of girls come out and I was kind of worried about that,” he said. “I thought it might mean a rough year for us, but at our first meet (Ridge Ferry in Rome), we really had some girls step up and I'm pretty confident now that we can be a real contender for the region championship.

“We have several really solid freshmen (on the boys’ side). Everyone’s worked hard all summer long for the most part and they seem to have kind of gelled as a team. We have a lot of talent and we have a lot of depth, which is something we haven't had a lot of in the past. A boys’ region championship is really tough, but this is the kind of team that can do it if they will work together and really push themselves this season.”

The Lady Generals will have just two seniors this season, but it is two seasoned veterans in Lilly Black and Skye Remko.

Remko is a four-year veteran, whom Wynne said “leads by example” and whom he called one of the most dependable people on the team. Like Remko, Black is another quiet leader, but Wynne said that both have begun to take more of a vocal leadership role on the team this season.

Black was a first team Catoosa-Walker County Dream Team selection last year after finishing 19th at the region meet (23:33) and clocking in at 24:10 at state with a season-best of 22:25 at a meet at Baylor. Meanwhile, Remko saw her times come down all season long. She had a season-best 24:39 at the Sharptop Invitational at Pickens and she ran a 24:48 at the region meet.

At the top of the lineup is sophomore Allison Craft (22:40 average in 2017), who shared Catoosa County Girls’ Co-Runner of the Year honors a year ago. Craft was the top finisher for Heritage in last year’s region meet as her 21:34 earned her fifth place. Right behind her is junior Lucy Hicks, another first teamer, who took 13th at region with a 22:55.

Some talented underclassmen, including sophomores Morgan Easley, Gracie McCoy and Maggie Grayson and freshmen Emma Tennyson, Kalei Howard and Brylei Howard, should keep the Lady Generals near the top when it comes to this year’s 6-AAAA Championships.

On the boys’ side, Wynne will count on six seniors to lead the way.

Team captain Dakota Carter is a hard-working runner, whom Wynne said has earned the respect of the entire team. Another tireless worker is Nhan Le, also sets a good example for the younger runners to follow. Wynne said Le intensified his training in the offseason to put up even lower times this fall.

Self-motivated multi-sport athlete Ryan Craft excels on the football field, the soccer pitch and on the wrestling mat and Wynne said that Craft has put in even more work into running this offseason and has moved up in team qualifying. Meanwhile, Caleb Boyd has been a mainstay in the varsity lineup during his time with the Generals and is another team leader.

Another four-year veteran of the program is Simon Rhodes. A consistent runner with an always-positive attitude, Rhodes is serving as one of the captains on the junior varsity team this season to help mold the runners who will be the future of the program. The final senior, Jonathan Manion, has been dealing with a foot injury that has forced him to miss time on the course. However, Wynne said that Manion has taken on the role of team manager in the interim and has become an invaluable asset to the team in that role.

Boyd and Craft were first team picks last year. Boyd was sixth at the region meet and averaged 18:27 for the year. Craft was 14th at regionals and finished the season with an average time of 19:14.

Also making the first team last season was Joel Lewis, who averaged 19:24 as a freshman a year ago. Manion, Le and Carter were honorable mention picks, as was junior Luke Shackelford and sophomore Lance Marshall. Both will return this season, while other names to know include freshmen Gavin Chandler and Steven Burchard, along with junior Christian Merrill.

Wynne said the key to the season is to simply stay healthy, especially in the intense heat of the early part of the schedule.

“We’re going to take Wednesdays off to recover,” he explained. “In the past, we’ve done too many miles too early. We're also trying to keep things fresh and make each workout a little different to keep the enthusiasm up.

“This group has been really great. There's been very little drama, so the ball is really in my court. If I can keep them healthy and motivated, I think we can have two really good teams this year.”