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Cross country: Done playing second fiddle, South Forsyth boys are ready to make noise in the postseason
south cross country 2018
The South Forsyth boys and girls cross country teams pose after winning the overall title at the Wingfoot Invitational in September. Photo courtesy Rajamanickam Rangaswamy.

In the midst of meet season last year, the South Forsyth boys cross country team was exhausted and discouraged.

The War Eagles had finished fourth in the Area 5-7A meet, and in the back of their minds, they knew that they could have done more. At one particular practice after that race, they weren’t hitting their paces, and it was made worse by the unseasonable heat. Just when the morale seemed the lowest, Josh Hammond, South’s No. 1 runner last year, spoke up.

“He just said, ‘Shake it off. We all have that bad day,’” War Eagles senior Surya Rangaswamy said. “The next day, we pushed each other the entire hill workout. Usually when I finish the hill, I’m completely dead, but after that, I was screaming, cheering my teammates on. That’s when we started running for each other.”

The team mentality born from those few days spurred them to a third-place finish at the Class 7A meet last year, and the War Eagles have carried that standard into 2018. The boys team notched the top finish among 7A teams in September’s Wingfoot Invitational and won the Milton Invitational that same month, beating defending state champion Milton in the process. South is set to start this weekend’s area meet as one of the favorites to the team title, and that status will likely carry over to the state meet as well.

Being a state power in the sport isn’t new for South, but it’s mostly been the girls in recent years: The War Eagles won the state title in 2016, finished last year, and should again contend for the top spot this year. The boys, meanwhile, had typically finished further down in the standings before finally breaking through last season.

South cross county coach Nick Wansley credited much of the girls’ recent path to the influence of Savannah Carnahan, who recently earned NCAA All-American status in the 10,000 meters her sophomore season at Furman. The War Eagles have had a succession of top individuals, like current UGA runner Kaylee DuPont, since then.

The boys, meanwhile, lack that reliable top-10 finisher. The closest would be junior Michael Patterson, who finished 15th overall in last Saturday’s Coach Wood Invitational, but the War Eagles don’t have an individual star like Forsyth Central’s Calan Gizelbach. Wansley noted, though, that not all teams need that specific presence.

“You don't need someone finishing first and second in those races to have a really good team,” Wansley said. “I think Savannah showed that was really helpful, but with the guys, I think it's taking a while to click that they can do a good job and not have that guy that's not winning big time meets or anything like that.”

A big reason for the boys’ success is pack running, just like they did at state last year. At the Wingfoot Invitational, a race with plenty of elite individual runners from around the state, South’s best individual finish came from Patterson at 13th. Sean Catania, Brennan Brower and Rangaswamy all finished close to each other in the 34 to 44 slots to help give the War Eagles enough points for their result.

“When you have one person pass 10 people at the end, that's great,” Rangaswamy said. “But if you can get three people to pass three people, that's about the same amount of points. I usually run in the three or four spot, so I try and pull some of the guys back with me. I sacrifice a couple of seconds off my time, but I don't really want to run in college so it doesn't really matter.”

For those that do want to run at the next level, though, that might be a challenge. For South’s frontrunner, that was certainly true until the matured in his career.

“My freshman year, I'd say I ran more for myself,” Patterson said. “The team was at the back of my mind, but I was just trying to do the best I could do. When we were all closer together (during state), I realized that it was the team that made us place high up. I realized it just focusing on myself isn't going to help us.”