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FLOWERY BRANCH — Flowery Branch’s Kiara Woods knows how to make the best of her mistakes. Especially if it means turning that mistake into her best race of the year.
After an unfortunate disqualification at the Region 7-AAA Championship, Woods rebounded the following week to finish second in the 2008 Class AAA State Championship with a then-personal record time of 19 minutes, 4 seconds, wrapping up the season as one of the top runners in Class AAA.
"Racing-wise, it was the best race I had," Woods said. "That was the whole mindset I had going into it; to make up for region and run the best that I can."
For her efforts, Woods is The Times 2008 Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.
In the weeks prior to the Region 7-AAA Championship, the Hall County champion Woods had won three of four races and was a sure favorite to win the region’s biggest race at Unicoi State Park in Helen.
But a misjudgment of the course boundaries quickly derailed those chances. With 400 meters to run and control of the lead, Woods accidentally ran outside a tree on a turn instead of inside it, causing her to step off the course and
disqualifying her from the race.
"I turned around and went back but I didn’t step back far enough," Woods said. "It was really upsetting, but it was a lesson learned."
Luckily, the Lady Falcons still won the region title as a team, allowing Woods to race in the Class AAA State Championship the following week in Carrollton.
That’s where she put the mistake behind her, and her opponents paid for it.
Woods’ second-place finish at state was 14 seconds better than the third-place time, a lengthy gap for a field of 203 runners.
"She deserved every bit of it because she has the talent and the worth ethic, and that’s why she did so well," Flowery Branch coach Jimmy Sorrells said. "It’s always nice to have an athlete of that caliber in your program."
The strong finish for the junior was only fitting for someone who had become Flowery Branch’s leader as the season went by. Not only did she win the Hall County Championship, she also won the "Red" race of the Great American Cross Country Festival Oct. 11 and the Carrollton Last Chance race on Oct. 25.
But Woods’ best performance to date came after the state championship when she shattered her personal record by 20 seconds with an 18:44 finish in the Foot Locker South Regional on Nov. 29 in Charlotte, N.C. She finished fifth among Georgia-based runners in a field that featured the top runners from the entire Southeastern United States.
And with her times only getting better, even in the cross country offseason, Woods will be even harder to catch next year.
"She’s an incredible runner," Sorrells said. "She can maintain pace at a high rate for a long time."
That skill has also made Woods valuable on the track, which, surprisingly enough, is her favorite place to run.
"I love them both (cross country and track) but I like track a little bit a better," she said. "I like the races better in track. It’s more competitive."
In fact, track was where Woods started separating herself from the rest of the competition as an 800, 1,600 and 3,200-meter representative for Flowery Branch last year.
"My sophomore track season was the first time I was No. 1 with everyone there (competing)," she said. "Ever since then, I’ve pushed myself a little bit harder to keep that spot.
"When cross country season came around, I wanted to keep that spot so I could finish better among everyone too."
With that top spot comes attention, and not just from the local media or region rivals either. Instead, Woods has attracted early interest from colleges, including Georgia Tech and Wofford.
"She’s the first junior I’ve coached that has colleges expressing interest in recruiting her," Sorrells said. "They can’t really talk to her, but they can send her letters.
"That shows her caliber of ability," he added. "I’m sure she’ll get offers (next year)."
But before Woods concerns herself with college, she still has a big season of cross country left to run, and a few goals set for her senior year: repeat this year’s success at state, and break the 18-minute mark.
"I feel a lot more confident going into next year, she said. "I’m going to work as hard as I can to make the best year. Senior year has to be the best."