The new faces of West Forsyth’s girls cross country program were packed together at the Coach Benson Double Dip meet at Marist on Saturday. They were inseparable, two groups of three running through and around competitors. In one group were two freshmen and a first-year senior, in the other two sophomores and a senior captain.
Together – the word that best encapsulates West’s philosophy this season – they led West to an impressive and perhaps unlikely fourth-place finish out of 24 teams in arguably one of the toughest early meets of the season.
"There were a lot of really good teams there," senior captain Sara Jenkins said. "A lot of the teams were probably some of the ones that are going to be the top in the state, so it was pretty impressive competition."
That West was able to stick with those teams was a good sign for a program coming off the first season in school history that it didn’t send the team or an individual to the state meet.
That the Lady Wolverines did it with a group equal parts young and inexperienced was a good sign for the program’s future.
"We expect them to keep progressing through the season," West coach Clayton Tillery said, "but, yeah, it was a good day."
Freshmen Liz Galarza and Julie Ericson and first-year senior Haley Anderson had the best days for West. The trio stuck together during the race, one defined by two dramatic hills for which the meet is named. They finished 19th, 21st and 23rd, respectively, three first-year runners taking charge for West.
A former track specialist, Galarza had never raced more than 800 meters before she joined the team this season. She was used to running one mile during practice, not four or five.
"I came here and was like, wow," Galarza said. "[Middle school] wasn’t this much practice."
Regardless, she’s emerged as the Lady Wolverines’ top runner, though not by much. Ericson isn’t too far behind, not a surprise considering her pedigree – her older sister ran cross country at Carnegie Mellon University – or her experience – she had a top time at the middle school state championship meet last year.
Anderson had no experience running, though Tillery and assistant coach Chris Roy had their eye on her the past few years. They taught the senior in P.E. class, saw her run an impressive mile for the state-mandated fitness test and tried to get her on the team the past two years to no avail. She finally showed up this season, abruptly joining the team for summer workouts.
"We’ve been very fortunate to have her," Roy said. "She’s a great kid, great attitude – fits right in with the team."
Sophomores Kaitlyn Griffith and Kim Gibson and Jenkins were less than a minute behind the first trio. They finished one after the other – 51st, 52nd, 53rd, respectively.
It’s a strategy that Tillery and the West coaching staff have emphasized during practice this season, and it worked on Saturday. With three runners in the top 25 and three more in the top 55, the Lady Wolverines finished ahead of 11 teams ranked by Ga.Milesplit in their respective classifications.
"We all run together as a pack and try to keep together so one person doesn’t speed up and by the end is tired, but not have one person run too slow either," Galarza said. "Just kind of where you’re in that perfect timing and everybody’s doing their best."
"I think it helps," Jenkins said. "You can kind of use your teammates to group-run around people, and you can strategize better. It just works."
It’s helped the team build better chemistry with so many newcomers. Galarza, Ericson and fellow freshman Hadley Karandjeff were welcomed by the team immediately.
"You’d probably think this group’s been together seven or eight years," Tillery said. "They gelled so quickly. They truly care about each other. They run more for each other than they do themselves.
"That selfless attitude will, I think, help us succeed this year."