7-AAAAA — Boling Park in Canton, 8 a.m.
6-AAAAAA — Chattahoochee Point Park in Suwanee,
8-A — Athens Christian School in Athens, 4:45 p.m.
Mae McKenna was cut from her middle school track team last year. Now, the freshman is the top runner for Lambert’s girls cross country team.
Liz Galarza had never run a race more than a mile in middle school. Now, the freshman is West Forsyth’s second best girls cross country runner – behind fellow freshman Julie Ericson.
Across Forsyth County, cross country teams enter this weekend’s region championship meets relying more and more on younger talent.
Forsyth Central goes into the Region 7-AAAAA meet Saturday at Boling Park in Canton hoping sophomore Max Warner can lead the Bulldogs to their first ever state championship appearance.
South Forsyth’s boys team looks like the favorite heading into the Region 6-AAAAAA meet Saturday at Chattahoochee Point Park thanks to sophomore Ryan Peppenhorst, the team’s top runner.
On and on it goes for Forsyth teams. Young runners are leading the way – sophomore Bonnie McKinnon for Central girls; freshman Saul Renteria and sophomore Gigi Fulkerson for North Forsyth boys and girls, respectively; sophomore John Green for West boys, McKenna for Lambert girls; and sophomore Savannah Carnahan and freshman Milicent Bergey for South girls.
The reasons for this season’s influx of young talent vary. The course load on underclassmen is lighter. Past accomplishments don’t create expectations. Could be just "one of those years," South coach Van Munn said.
"They’re basically very, very fresh athletes," Lambert coach Natalie Leonard said.
"Especially on the girl’s side, it’s easier," West coach Clayton Tillery said. "Between a 13-year-old girl and an 18-year-old girl, there’s a lot of difference."
McKenna’s serendipitous emergence for Lambert came thanks to her friendship with Lady Longhorns sophomore Katherine Aikins, one of the team’s top returning runners.
Both knew each other from the year-round swimming circuit. When McKenna entered Lambert this season, Aikins encouraged the freshman to join the cross country team. McKenna comes from a family of recreational runners anyways.
Her impact was instant. She finished a team-high eighth at the Longhorn Invitational. She led the Lady Longhorns at the Nike Invitational, River Run, Gene Mullin and this past week at Last Chance on the state meet course in Carrollton.
"We were so pleasantly surprised with McKenna," Leonard said.
But every young runner’s entrance into the cross country program requires assimilation. Bergey and Galarza spoke earlier this season about their trepidation in joining a team filled with upperclassmen and long-defined friendships.
Leonard said it was Lambert’s seniors who made sure McKenna and the rest of Lambert’s newcomers felt like part of the team. They invited underclassmen to a team bowling night and an ice cream social. They made sure they attended a team Halloween festival with pumpkin carving contests (no coaches allowed).
"We want them to be like big brother, big sisters to these [underclassmen]," Leonard said. "That [underclassman] is the future of the team."
But on Saturday’s, Forsyth cross country teams’ future plans for the state championship meet rest mainly on what these underclassmen can do now.