Before Max Warner hit the cross country trails this season, the Forsyth Central sophomore hit the recruiting trails.
Warner and teammates devoted much of the start of the school year trying to get more people to join the cross country program. In hallways, they pleaded for people to come to a practice just once. That’s all it would take, they said.
"I would focus on the team atmosphere," Warner said. "You just make life-long friends."
Warner said they were successful. More people came out to practice. Many have kept coming back.
"At first they were like, ‘Running? No way,’" Warner said. "But most of them are still running."
The quality of participation has been just one of several positive signs this season for a Central boys cross country program that is still seeking its first-ever state meet appearance.
Warner is the program’s clear leader. The sophomore finished eighth out of over 180 runners at the Pickens Preview this past Saturday in 17 minutes 30.97 seconds. Central finished eighth out of over 20 teams.
"It was good," Warner said. "We did pretty well as a team. Almost everyone [had a personal record]. I think I did pretty well. It’s not the easiest course, but I think I did good for the first race of the season."
The meet has Central boys currently sitting in fourth in Region 7-AAAAA. The top four teams from each region qualify for the state meet at Carrollton in November.
It’s an early projection, but still, it provides some hint that the Bulldogs might be ready to make history this season.
"You hate to base everything on potential," Central co-coach Greg Parker said. "We’re young. We’ve got one senior. But they’ve got talent. If they all reach their potential, we’ve got a good chance at reaching state. We can do it."
This mission is one Central only embraced this past week. Parker was walking through the school’s gymnasium one day. He casually looked up at the rafters to see the banners for every Bulldogs sport that had reached the state playoffs.
He searched and searched for the boys cross country banner but couldn’t find it.
"So we got to get a banner," Parker said.
That was the message at Central’s next practice. Parker explained how it would work, how there would be a simple banner with BOYS CROSS COUNTRY stitched at the top in bold letters, how stitched below would be the year – 2013 – of the program’s state meet appearance. No names, just one year. A true team accomplishment.
"It would be really cool, because there’s only one first team," Warner said. "There can be more teams from Central that make it, but only one first."
If the Bulldogs reach the state meet, it will be in great part because of Warner’s lead. He’s been the program’s top runner since he entered it last season.
He finished 10th at the region meet last season, two spots away from qualifying individually for state. He impressed at the Furman University and Nike Smokey Mountain camps this summer. He cracked the top 1,000 in the Peachtree Road Race out of almost 60,000 runners this year.
"I don’t know if he’s got the genes or anything, but he’s just got the drive inside him," Parker said. "He just works year-round at it. He sets goals for himself and he does what it takes to reach those goals."
Warner’s first goals came in soccer. He played the sport growing up until the fifth grade when he was pushed during a game and fell, landing awkwardly and breaking his right arm.
Warner’s mom made him take a break from soccer. To pass the time, Warner started following his sister, Megan, then a freshman at West Forsyth, to her cross country practices. He ran with Wolverines boys runners like Jeff Bagley – or tried to, anyway.
"I couldn’t keep up with them," Warner said, "but it was fun to see them, fun to run with them."
This is how Warner caught the running bug. Soon his dad, Don, was researching workouts. Soon Warner was finishing second in the middle school state championship meet.
But developing so quickly through middle school, Warner was starting to feel the limits of his ability. So he decided to take whatever times new Central co-coach Shannon Hays set for him during practice and beat it by four or five seconds.
If she told him to run 1,200 meters in four minutes, he tried for 3:56.
If she told him to run a mile in 5:10, he tried for 5:06.
"I’m just working a lot harder in practice," Warner said.
And to Parker, this may be the key for Central’s quest to reach state – for the rest of the Bulldogs’ young team to see Warner pushing himself in practice and strive to do the same. At the Pickens meet, Central got strong finishes from Will Scott, Charlie Webb, Cole Gizelbach and Joseph Rank.
"He just kind of pulls everybody with him," Parker said. "He’s a quiet guy, but he’s out here every day working hard. He leads more by example, and his effort shows in his races."
Warner said there are those times at practice when the effort starts to wane in the face of exhaustion. But now, he and Scott and Webb and the rest of the Bulldogs have the best possible reminder of why to push through – to reach the state meet.
"When you’re feeling it," Warner said, "that’s good motivation."