When Gainesville cross country coach Richard Corbett took over both the girls and boys teams earlier this year, he knew he wanted to change the culture early on.
Instead of beginning practice at the start of the school year like the previous regimes typically had, he decided to set up a summer practice regiment. Corbett’s program opened on June 11th of this year, and he said he wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of turnout.
The 40 or 50 students that showed up from day one were both a pleasant surprise and a sign of what was to come for Gainesville cross country.
“At that point, I kind of knew, ok, we’re going to have something going here,” Corbett said.
As the season winds to a close with the Class 6A meet taking place this Friday and Saturday at Carrolton High School, Corbett’s suspicions have proven to be correct.
The Gainesville teams swept the 8-6A region meet on Oct. 25, with both boys and girls teams earning automatic bids to the state championship in Carrolton. It was the first time either team had won the region since moving up to Class 6A three years ago, and the first time the girls have ever qualified in the higher classification.
“Since it is our first state meet together, I feel like we’ll just give it our best,” Gainesville runner Ashley Sosa said. “As a team, I think we’re going to do great. I believe in my team, so I feel like we’re going to be great.”
Sosa’s confidence is a feeling that began with the renewed passion Corbett brought to the program and one that has permeated both the boys and girls squads from the start of the season.
Corbett said his relationship with the athletes is what pushed both teams over the top in terms of dedication to the program, and the results have already shown. His passion and enthusiasm for cross country, combined with positive results from the get-go urged the program on to its most successful regular season since changing classifications.
“Once (coach Corbett) got here, we had a lot of changes,” said senior Miguel Lopez, who finished first individually in the region meet. “He got everything right. He got everybody to come to practice. It changed a lot. It got bigger.”
Corbett’s presence had a particularly strong effect on a girls team that had not gotten much attention from the program’s previous head coach.
“The girls felt that they were kind of being overlooked, overshadowed,” Corbett said. “…. I think they started seeing what the boys were doing and (said) ‘Hey, if we buy in on this same program, we’re going to be that good.’ I think it was just a steady buy-in, just trusting and seeing the attention I was giving them.”
By the midpoint of the season, several members of the girls team had even approached Corbett with their beliefs that this would be the year the Lady Red Elephants would qualify for the state meet.
But Corbett was already way ahead of them.
“I had already booked nine hotel rooms back in June,” he said. “I felt like we were going to make it, just because I felt like I cared a little bit more.”
Now that the teams have qualified, they face one more race at a Carrolton track both groups have experience running. In preparation for state, Corbett made sure to take his runners there for a meet in last month.
The Carrolton course is notorious for its steep hills, but Corbett has made a point of getting his athletes ready for that as well.
“We did do a bunch of hill work,” said Ashley Thompson, a freshman who finished second individually in the region meet. “And you start out on a hill, so you kind of just have to push out on the first part.”
The forecast indicating rain in the Carrolton are for the event still has not dampened the spirits of Corbett or his runners, who never skip practice — no matter how ugly it gets outside.
“I think it wouldn’t affect us much,” Lopez said. “I think it would actually help us, (since) we’ve run in the rain before.”
Although it’s still early in Corbett’s tenure, he’s already making good on the promise made to his kids when he first started coaching there: “we’re not going to be looking up to Flowery Branch and North Hall.”
With only one race left, both groups have a chance to prove how competitive they can be among all the 6A programs in the state. Corbett is confident his athletes will be up for the challenge.
“They’re excited to go,” he said. “I don’t think they’ll be overwhelmed having raced there already in September. I don’t think it’s going to scare them.”