HELEN — The daily training at 6 in the morning paid off in more ways than one for the Flowery Branch cross country teams.
With the temperature hovering at a cool 55 degrees for the Region 7-AAA cross country meet Thursday at Unicoi State Park, the Falcons and Lady Falcons burned up the course on their way to a sweep of the boys and girls team region titles and a berth in the Class AAA state playoffs Nov. 8 in Carrollton.
“The temperature was just right,” Flowery Branch coach Jimmy Sorrells said. “This is the temperature they’re used to, the environment they’re comfortable in and that played right into our hands.
“This is more than I could have hoped for. I was extremely nervous before the race because I knew there was the possibility of a great day.”
On the boys side, the entire Falcons team (seven runners) finished in the top 15, giving Class AAA’s No. 1-ranked Flowery Branch an average time of 16 minutes, 47 seconds in the 3-mile race, 12 seconds better than second-place finisher North Hall.
“We have strength in numbers,” Sorrells said, “it’s a true team concept. They know the better they do as a group the better the team performs.
“In their mind they all run for Flowery Branch.”
Setting the tone for the Falcons was their lone senior Daniel Martinez (16:39), who headed up the long list of Flowery Branch runners to finish in the top 15.
“Daniel has provided a lot of emotional leadership because he’s been there before,” Sorrells said. “He’s been selfless to make sure we accomplished this goal as a group.”
The Trojans, ranked No. 5 in the state, still managed to boast a champion of their own in senior Nolan Clark who, with a time of 16:11, took the boys individual title by four seconds over second place finisher, Pickens’ Tyler Dunn.
Dunn looked in control coming down the stretch, leading Clark with less than a mile to go. Clark, however, knew he had him right where he wanted him.
“I knew from track season when I run against Tyler,” Clark said, “I know I’ve got a sprint that can outdo his, so I let him putz along and once I got on the gravel (600 meters from the finish), it’s like getting on a track, I just took off.
“I was controlled and never drifted from winning. Ever since the Mountain Invitational (at the Unicoi course) I knew I could put them away, that was the set strategy.”
Clark’s goal coming into the race was to beat former teammate Nick Long’s state time of 16:24, he bested it by 13 seconds.
Headed by Clark, North Hall will join Flowery Branch at Carrollton for the state meet.
“We’re going for the team title,” Clark said. “If I can run that time at state then I can put maybe 10-11 spots on (Flowery Branch’s) Daniel (Martinez) and those places could possibly give up the team championship.
“They’re my motivation.”
West Hall (17:40), the state’s No. 8 team, and Chestatee (18:13) rounded out the top four for the boys, all of which will participate in next week’s state meet.
Clark, Dunn, North Hall’s Ty McCormack (16:28), Martinez, Flowery Branch’s David Farist (16:43) and
West Hall’s Andy Martin (16:46) were the top six finishers for the boys and all qualified individually for state.
The girls team race was decided by one second, with the Lady Falcons average time of 21:18 barely besting Region 7-AAA defending champion West Forsyth (21:19).
The margin wouldn’t have been so slim had Flowery Branch’s top girls runner, Kiara Woods, who finished second, not been disqualified for running off course.
“It’s an unfortunate incident,” Sorrells said. “It’s one of those things you’re going to learn from but, in our opinion, what we’re going to do as coaches is blame ourselves. We’re supposed to make sure our athletes are familiar with the course, so we take full responsibility.
“If we’d had her, look at how much better we’d have been so really it’s a compliment to our team that we pulled it out.”
Woods, despite her disqualification, will still get a chance to make her first appearance at the state meet thanks to her team’s score.
“I’m hoping to get a top 10 finish,” she said, “that’s my goal. A top five finish would by really great but I’m just going to try as hard as I can.
“I’m pretty nervous, but for the most part, I’m really excited.”
The Chestatee (22:04) and North Hall (22:27) girls were the final two teams to qualify for the state meet.
Individually, West Forsyth’s Kat Gibson repeated as individual champion, besting teammate, and second place finisher, Taylor Roeck by 10 seconds.
Gibson’s race strategy was much like her male counterparts.
In fourth place behind Woods, Roeck and Pickens’ Sarah Turner coming through the first mile and lagging way behind into the second, and uphill climb, Gibson kicked it into gear down the stretch.
“The last mile I pushed as hard as I could and coming through the last 400 meters, I pushed even harder,” Gibson said. “I got even and then kicked again and ended up winning.
“It feels amazing, it’s great.”
Gibson noted that her team set a goal of winning state prior to the start of the season
and has been pushing in preparation of attaining that goal the entire season.
“I’m really looking forward to state,” she said. “I want to go and just push as hard as I can and give it my all and try winning it.”
Gibson, Roeck, Turner (20:05), Flowery Branch’s Eileen Devico (20:13), Chestatee’s Kelsey Neukem (20:20.17) and White County’s Jessie Dotson (20:20.49) all qualified for state individually. Much like Thursday’s race, the region champion Flowery Branch teams have an advantage going into the state meet. Both the girls and boys finished first at the Last Chance Invitational in Carrollton last Saturday.
“I’m pretty optimistic and it makes me feel good about what we can do,” Sorrells said. “We went to get familiar with the course and it was a self esteem boost and a good little side note.”