Clayton Tillery recalls the moment proudly. The West Forsyth coach had not led his team to a state or region championship. As the waning minutes of a regular season meet last year wound down and it became clear the Wolverines girls would not win, his runners were cheering louder and longer than every other team.
"The winning team came up to us after the race and asked why we were cheering so loud for a fourth place finish," Tillery said. "One of our kids, without missing a beat, said, ‘We’re just happy when we succeed, no matter what that looks like.’"
Success for West’s girls cross country team last year came in the form of a fifth-place finish at the state meet in Class AAAAAA, including top-30 finishes from Liz Galarza and Julie Ericson as freshmen. A podium finish at the state meet and a region championship are reasonable expectations this year, though West will face stiff competition in Region 6.
Galarza and Ericson are the leading returners for the Wolverines and ran at a significantly faster pace in West’s time trial Aug. 16.
"The main goal for Julie and me is to break 19 minutes," Galarza said. "For the team, we have to make state. We can worry about the state meet then."
Tillery’s training methods help ensure that West runners have enough left in the tank for the all-important region and state meets.
"We’re pretty conservative with our kids in terms of mileage," he said. "We prefer quality over quantity so that our runners can be fresh come November. The last thing we want to do is be greedy and get somebody hurt for the postseason."
Galarza and Ericson said Tillery strikes a fine balance as a coach.
"He can be demanding at times, but we understand why he’s expecting more out of us," Ericson said.
"He understands what we need and cares about us as individuals," Galarza said. "It doesn’t matter if you’re a fast runner or a slow runner; he cares just as much about all of us."
Tillery said his team is stronger mentally because they work hard for each other, instead of working towards individual goals.
"We try to approach it as a family," he said. "Our kids seem to have a genuine appreciation for one another."
West opens the season Aug. 23 at the Stage Races in Duluth, where Tillery will get to evaluate what he believes will be a more competitive lineup this season. He listed Dara Niemi, who missed much of last season due to injury, junior Kimmy Gibson and freshman Amanda MacArthur as the best bets to fill the final three slots for the Wolverines.
"We’re deeper than we ever have been," Tillery said. "In fact, I think we’ll be a whole lot better than we were last year."