Lambert and South Forsyth high schools might have the most intense rivalry in Forsyth County. The roots of it are generally attributed to Lambert popping up and taking a huge chunk of South’s enrollment, just as the War Eagles were becoming one of the top athletic powers in the state. Since then, Lambert has become just that, piling up state championships faster than the school grounds can handle them.
But at last year’s state cross country championships, the two schools were bound by pride, because that was when the county forged its place as the dominant force in the state. Lambert won the boys title and South won the girls, both teams claiming their first titles in school history.
“We’ve seen them out running, too, putting in the work just like we have,” South senior Kaylee DuPont said.
Neither school expects to take a step back this fall. Both the Longhorns and War Eagles lose just one runner from the top seven that competed in the state meet, putting them on track to repeat last year’s sweep.
If they were to do so, it would be a startling reversal of the status quo on the state cross country scene. From 2000 to 2014, every cross country team champion at the state’s highest classification came from Cobb or Gwinnett counties. The Marietta boys’ repeat titles in 2014 and 2015 broke a 13-year streak of Gwinnett titles, and before Northview won in 2014, no girls team champion had come from outside Cobb or Gwinnett.
Forsyth’s sweep in 2016 was in part thanks to outside factors like the creation of Class 7A, which thinned out the competition. Both the War Eagles and Longhorns had better team showings than the Class 6A winners, though, and the county’s growth in population and the rise of feeder programs likely deserve most of the credit.
“(The county) has grown so much in the past years, so I think we’re starting to become bigger now,” Lambert senior Tyler Fox said.
Cross country isn’t known for having a club team culture like baseball or basketball, but more runners are coming into the county’s cross country programs with experience in environments like that. DuPont and War Eagles sophomore Caroline Patterson ran together in elementary school, when Patterson’s father, Greg, coached them.
Combine that with experience in middle school programs, and athletes are arriving in high school with a more advanced understanding of competitive running.
“It kind of teaches you how to really buckle down and get those workouts done,” DuPont said. “There’s a lot of people that may do soccer or swimming when they’re younger, but it’s a lot different being with the team and stuff (and) putting in the work at practices.”
The running scene that has developed outside the high schools has given both teams very strong depth, such that even while they return the majority of the squads that won state titles last year, changes beyond replacing graduated seniors could be possible. South Forsyth’s girls team ran three freshmen at the state meet last year, and the War Eagles have another strong group coming in 2017. Lambert only has to replace Byron Grogan, but Kyle Parker, Nick White and Logan Racine have the potential to make a jump into the Longhorns’ top group.
Whoever’s running, both teams will have to deal with something new to the county’s scene – pressure, to perform and live up to the championship standard set before.
Of course, that’s just one way of framing the expectations.
“I’d say it’s more motivation to do it,” Patterson said. “To get that title.”