New Balance Forsyth County Cross Country Championship
When, where: Saturday, Mary Alice Park in Cumming.
Schedule: 8 a.m., varsity boys; 8:30 a.m., varsity girls; 9 a.m., JV boys championship, 9:30 a.m., JV girls championship; 10 a.m., middle school boys; 10:30 a.m., middle school girls; 11 a.m., award ceremony.
Forsyth Central, the new No. 1-ranked team in Class AAAAA boys cross country, has heard it all from doubters. The Bulldogs have run only on fast courses or on courses a few meters short of 5,000, detractors say.
How, exactly, did the Bulldogs rise from an also-ran program just two years ago to reach the state cross country meet for the first time last season and to the school’s first-ever No. 1 ranking this season?
When Shannon Hays arrived before the 2013 school year, she found what amounted to a running club; Central practiced three days a week during the summer and ran mostly for fun. Hays instituted intense 5:30 a.m. summer workouts, five days a week. It was no longer just an after-school activity.
"She brought rigor to the program," junior Cole Gizelbach said.
"Coach Hays brought down the fist and made it so we were stuck with her every day," junior Will Hasse said, laughing.
Entering this Saturday’s Forsyth County Championships at Mary Alice Park, the Bulldogs are ranked No. 6 across all classifications in the state of Georgia. Central finished ahead of Lambert at the Bob Blastow Invitational and at the Berry College Clara Bowl, and the Bulldogs outran South Forsyth at last weekend’s Warpath Invitational.
"We’re ranked No. 1 in the state for the first time in school history, so [Saturday] means a lot," Hasse said. "We can make a statement. Even though we’ve beat other teams in the county in various races, they still don’t think we’re serious."
Central’s top five runners—Austin Campbell, Max Warner, Charlie Webb, Hasse and Gizelbach—pace themselves in different manners each race, but all five have posted times under 17 minutes this season. Campbell, in his first season running cross country, ran a 16:15 at Bob Blastow. He’s a ‘rabbit’ alongside Webb (16:35), meaning the pair run a fast first mile to set the pace. Warner (16:27) follows, and Hasse (16:47) and Gizelbach (16:49) usually run near one another.
Instead of worrying about individual times, the Bulldogs focus on running alongside teammates and chasing down any runner not clad in red and black.
Ga.MileSplit.com, a website dedicated to tracking cross country and track and field results, probably has the five Central boys to thank for a spike in page visits in recent weeks.
"Even when we’re not running, we’re still on Milesplit all the time thinking, can I beat him? How was my race compared to his?" Hasse said.
Meets like the Clara Bowl and the Warpath Invitational have no bearing on qualification for the state meet in Carrollton, but early-season races provide opportunities to strengthen times and strategy and to run in adverse conditions. The Bulldogs fought through oppressive heat at every meet and a jumbled pack of more than 500 runners at the Clara Bowl.
Webb and the Central ‘Pack’ have been eyeing one team: Clarkston. Central finished just behind the Angoras at Bob Blastow and have not since seen Clarkston; the two sides might not meet again until the Class AAAAA state championship meet.
Central’s win at the Warpath Invitational bodes well for the Region 7-AAAAA meet Nov. 1 on the same course: Boling Park in Canton.
"Region, I think we’ll do just fine, but it’s state that we’re more concerned with," Gizelbach said. The state meet course at Carrollton is notoriously hilly, typically making for slower times.
The Bulldogs realize that a mid-season No. 1 ranking means little if they’re not there at the end of the season, but for now, they’re basking in the glow of being ranked ahead of every other team in Forsyth County.
"A lot of schools counted us out before the season, so we’re still trying to prove that we’re the real deal," Warner said.