The state meet course in Carrollton requires smart running on its tough first mile and its constant hills. Central coach Shannon Hays isn’t worried about her mature team. For inexperienced teams, the danger at Carrollton is running too fast on adrenaline and not sticking to a reasonable pace in the first mile that, unbeknownst to many, actually climbs a gradual incline.
"Our boys run as a pack, which I think is to our advantage there," Hays said. "Nobody will get ahead of the others and if they do, we can reel them back in. The boys have lots of composure so they should be able to relax early on."
With everybody healthy, Central’s top five is usually Max Warner, Austin Campbell, Cole Gizelbach, Will Hasse and Charlie Webb; the order changes nearly every week, depending on who runs well. Hays held Webb out of last Saturday’s Region 7-AAAAA meet, so Wesley Bacastow was the Bulldogs’ No. 5.
Central, ranked No. 2 in Class AAAAA, has been waiting for a shot at top-ranked Clarkston all season, and they’ll get their chance in Carrollton. Clarkston does not race often but has historically been good at the state meet.
"We’ve got to stick to our race and keep everybody together, and then we can worry about going after Clarkston in the last mile," Hays said. "The best team at Carrollton isn’t always the one who’s been fastest all year. The team that runs the smartest and who uses the hills to their advantage usually wins."
The Bulldogs race at 7:45 a.m. on Saturday. Central will head down to Carrollton on Friday afternoon after a school send-off and run the course Friday evening.
"This is really the first time we’ve gone down there with a real chance at winning a state championship," Hays said. "It’s a business trip."
Central isn’t the only Forsyth county team with at least an outside chance at a state cross country championship. Savannah Carnahan, Kaylee DuPont and the South Forsyth girls, John Green and the West Forsyth boys and Ryan Peppenhorst and the South boys should be gunning for top-five finishes.
Carnahan ran the state meet course several weeks ago at the Last Chance Invitational and finished in 18:57, which would’ve won the 2013 Class AAAAAA state meet by seven seconds. South coach Van Munn said Carnahan ran that time despite taking it easy in the first mile.
Munn admits, however, that the Last Chance meet is just a bit different than the state meet.
"Historically, we’ve done better at Last Chance than state," Munn said. "We’re looking to make this our best appearance at state. My hope is that we run smarter—go easy early to save more for late."
The Lady War Eagles topped Northview at last Saturday’s region meet as Carnahan pushed the Lady Titans’ Lindsay Billings. Results can be skewed in what was a small, 70-runner field at the region meet; the state meet has a 200-plus runner field.
"If Savannah and Kaylee [DuPont] can be top ten or top five—and they very well could be—we will be in good shape," Munn said. "But that’s a big if. You never know at state. If one girl has a bad day, then that’s it."
On the boys’ side for South, Munn said the War Eagles can finish in the top five at state—that is, if his top five runners (Peppenhorst, Matt Patterson, Trevor Kane, Reed Vaughn, Luke Francis) each race their best. Marietta is the top boys team in the entire state, according to ga.milesplit.com; other Class AAAAAA teams on that list include Milton, Mill Creek, Brookwood, Walton—and West Forsyth.
"It’s going to be tight for second through sixth or seventh place, and it’s too close to call what order the teams will finish in," Munn said. "We want to beat West and that’s our intention."
At last year’s state meet, the West boys (12th place) edged South (13th) by 12 points for the best finish of any Region 6 team. John Green finished 42nd with a 17-minute, 31-second run.
West coach Clayton Tillery feels as good about his team since the Wolverines ran at the Stage Races in August.
"We ran well this year at the Marist Double Dip and at the Crimson Classic in Alabama, both of which are extremely hilly courses like Carrollton," Tillery said.
Tillery made it clear from the get-go that West was doing everything this season with an eye towards the state meet.
"Along the way I think we made some decisions that maybe weren’t as popular, like skipping the county meet, to keep us ready for this weekend," Tillery said.
The West girls are improving at the right time as sophomore Julie Ericson rounds in to form and Dara Niemi returns after resting during the region meet. Liz Galarza and Ericson both placed in the top 30 as freshmen at the state meet last year.
Lambert’s Johnathan Schwind led the Longhorns to a third-place finish at the Region 6-AAAAAA meet. The Lambert girls did not qualify.
Schwind beat Peppenhorst and Green last weekend; as a junior, Schwind was the top individual finisher out of Region 6 at the state meet (17:30.04, 39th place), just ahead of Green and 15 seconds ahead of Peppenhorst. The Horns will be hard-pressed, however, to beat South and West as a team. Lambert finished 19th at state last season.
The Class AAAAAA races on Saturday start at 1:25 and 2:05 p.m., different than the usual early-morning regular season and region meets.
"It really just comes down to who feels the best on race day," Munn said. "The most important part, really, is to not let the excitement of state get to you."