The LaFayette High School cross country team has been right on the cusp of breaking through the top four in the Region 6-AAAA standings and earning that long-awaited state berth.
And 2019 just might be the year.
“I’m excited about this year,” said seventh-year head coach Chris O’Neil. “I think we have a lot of talent and, for the first time, I can say that our girls’ team is deep where we haven’t been in the past. To be quite honest, I think we have a good chance of having both the boys’ and the girls’ teams going to state.”
O’Neil said the process of building up the program on both sides has been a slow one, but it’s a process that is beginning to bear fruit.
“When I first got here, there were only five kids on the entire cross country team, both boys and girls, the year before,” said O’Neil, who took over as head coach in 2013. “We slowly built our numbers up. Those first two or three years we got bigger (as a team), but still not very fast. Over time though, we’ve been creeping up and this year might be our year.”
The girls’ roster will feature four seniors in Hannah Dearing, Hope McClure, Caitlyn Watson and Megan Wilson.
Dearing saw her times drop significantly from the first part of last season until the end of the year. She finished second at the Walker County Championships with a 23:11 and finished 18th overall at the region championships with a 24:11. O’Neil said some fine-tuning in her training, including road biking for extra cardio, should pay off and he expects a big year from his top returning runner.
Watson and McClure also saw major improvement in their junior seasons. McClure had a Top 10 finish at the county championships with a 26:38 and improved to a 25:53 at the region meet, a drop of almost nine minutes from her second meet of the year. Meanwhile, Watson also finished in the Top 10 at the county meet with a season-best 27:24 as she also saw lowered times as the season progressed.
Wilson, the final senior, is an outstanding athlete, who gave up softball to focus a potential college career as a soccer player. She will be running cross country for the first time, but O’Neil believes she will be a significant contributor this season.
Sophomore Natalie Ball spent much of last year injured, but recovered in time to post solid times in the final three weeks of the season. Now healthy, Ball is expected to be a fixure in the lineup. O’Neil is also hopeful that freshman Haynie Gilstrap, a cross country and track distance specialist in middle school, will add depth. Gilstrap is also a standout softball player and will be splitting time between the two sports this fall.
The girls’ roster also includes veteran juniors Elizabeth Perkins and Bianca Rogers, sophomores Brittany Aguero, Natashia Cooper, Zoe Haggard, Breana Missidine and Morgan Rowlls and two additional freshmen in Alethea Hendrix and Annie Nesmith.
On the boys’ side, O’Neil is thrilled to have senior Devin Henderson and junior Josh Perea back in the fold.
Henderson is the top returning runner to the LaFayette lineup. He averaged 18:44 as a junior, which included a third-place finish in the Walker County Championship (17:56) and a fourth-place finish in the region championships in Dalton, in which his 17:48 is believed to be a LaFayette school record. He also qualified for state as an individual and finished in a time of 19:15. Perea improved his times as the 2018 season went on. His best effort came at the county championships where he finished fourth in a time of 18:29.
The rest of the senior class includes Andrew Long, who ran a season-best 19:02 to finish in the Top 10 at the county championships, along with Jordan Capello and Julian Murray.
Juniors Crandale Jackson and Steven Sanford saw plenty of varsity action a year ago and are expected to help lead the team this fall, while the remainder of the squad includes juniors Jackson Allen, Taylor Parrish and Eli Prince, sophomores Gage Henderson, Logan Reed, Jacob Shadwick and Jack Wilson and freshmen Jathan Harding, Alex Holloway and Darren Scott.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what Devin can do,” O’Neil added. “He had such a great year last year and went to state. He had an awesome year in track as well, so I’m hoping he can be my No. 1 runner once again. That being said, Josh is going to be right there too and we have (Wilson) that transferred from Chattanooga Christian. He had some pretty good times last year, but he’s been running a lot this summer and I’m really curious to see what he’s going to be able to do.
“Some of our other returners, like Andrew and Steven, have been putting in a lot of miles too and they’re looking strong. Both of them have been on the team for a couple of years now and they’re putting in the time. We’ve got a lot of boys and we’ve got some that I think can be really fast. We have a freshman (Scott) who looks like he’s got some potential. He’s got some speed over a mile or two miles. We just have to get him ready for the 5K races. There’s a lot of good kids this year.”
Although cross country is a sport based primarily on individual performances, O’Neil said the key to the season would be working together as a team.
“I’m focusing on them really training hard in groups, staying together and pushing each other,” he said. “We do some work on a big hill across the street from the school. They’re not running it alone, they’re running together and when they get to the top, they go back down and catch the next ones that are coming up. They keep running back, up and down, until everybody’s at the top and then we all run back down together. We’re really relying on each other working together and training together instead of trying to do it all solo.”