Looking back, Flowery Branch boys cross country coach Jimmy Sorrells considers his team fortunate to have won the Class AAA state title last season. Sorrells knows it was a battle to the finish line that day against the Falcons’ rivals from North Hall.
But when the day was finished, it was Flowery Branch standing atop the victory stand, as a result of its top six runners all placing in the top 30, despite the Trojans putting their top three in the top 10.
"The reason we won is simply because of our depth," Sorrells said.
This kind of battle at the state championship is nothing new for Hall County cross country. This area, which has produced boys state champions two of the past three seasons (2006 North Hall, 2008 Flowery Branch), is quickly becoming a home to some of the best distance running in the state.
In 2008, Flowery Branch finished second and North Hall finished fifth in the all-classification final rankings.
"To have two schools this size ranked so high in the poll of all schools is special," Sorrells added.
This year looks to be just as strong as traditional powers Flowery Branch, North Hall, West Hall and White County all are strong on the boys and girls side. The addition of West Forsyth and Creekview into Region 7-AAA has only made the competition more stout. Other schools also have individual runners that look to crack the top 10 at state.
"This is without question the hardest region to come out of and qualify for the state meet," Chestatee coach Michael Hughes said. "With 14 teams, this year it is only going to be tougher."
In 2009, the same battle between Flowery Branch’s and North Hall’s boys looks to be setting up, even though Sorrells says that North Hall may have a leg up on the chase for the region title. On the girls side, Flowery Branch returns from winning the region title and a sixth place finish at state. West Forsyth placed second in region and took fourth at state in 2008.
One thing the Flowery Branch boys have on their side is depth. David Farist (11th at state, 16:39), Maurice Riden (13th, 16:45), Kenny Slavik (15th, 16:48), Jeffrey Velez (24th, 16:59) and A.J. Clendennin (26th, 17:02) are all back this season. At the same time, the Falcons have depth with the addition of Patrick Doyle (school record holder in the 800 meter), and sophomores Drew Garland and Colton Donino.
At North Hall, the boys are anchored by Ty McCormack (fifth at state, 16:22) and Cody Barger (ninth, 16:33). Brandon Lawson, Reese Walker and Luis Gonzalez will provide strong depth to the group.
The West Hall High boys placed eighth at state last season and return junior Keegan Kyle, Josh Pendley and sophomore Jimmy Gault. The Spartans will also look for a strong season from Jason Reyes and Edwardo Velasquez. Spartans coach Sam Borg thinks that with the strength of the region, that it is possible for four top-10 teams to represent 7-AAA at the state meet.
At Chestatee, Fidel Reyes, Corey Schrader, Diego Sanchez, Martin Sanchez and Emmanual Ibarra look to lead the War Eagles. The Gainesville cross country program looks to be stronger than in recent seasons with six of last year’s top seven returning, including Aurelio Montano and David Whitson. State champion pole vaulter Paul Malquist is a newcomer to the Red Elephants’ program, along with returning runners Ben Klein, Pablo Alberto, Luis Martinez and Facundo Arroyo.
Senior Oscar Navarrete is the leader for Johnson’s boys. Santiago Marceleno, Eric Plascencia, Ben Cervantes, Juan Morfin, Gabriel Carillo and Ruben Castro are other leaders for the Knights. White County is led by school-record holder Mark Moody.
In Region 6-AA, the Buford boys placed ninth last year at the state meet, their first trip since 1997. Key runners this season for the Wolves are Matt Johnson, Alex Oliver, Dylan Price, Travis Howes and Michael Becker.
The Banks County boys return Jorge Diaz, Ivan Diaz, Kieffer Hellmeister, Nathan Holloway, Viet Pham, Trey Martin and Avery Chastain off its team that placed 15th at state in 2008. Also in Region 8-AA, the top three for Riverside Military are Landon Rowinski, Alec Ruppenthal and freshman Kowako Billie.
In Region 8-AAA, John Florentin, Austin Moser, Zach Knight, John Fernandez, Dragos Teador and Tyler Ledford all return for Jackson County. At Jefferson, the leaders for the boys team include Michael Stephenson, Trae Timmerman, Jake Marlowe and Jake Sherman.
Ethan Thomas is the top returning runner for Commerce.
It’s not just the boys at Flowery Branch that look strong — the girls have plenty of talent, too. State runner-up Kiara Woods, Eileen Devico, Megan Kirk, Ana Lopera and Janet Whittaker should provide the nucleus for the Falcons as they look to repeat as 7-AAA champions.
The North Hall girls have six returning runners with varsity experience, including Trice Sweet, Ansley Lawson, Connie Steinmann, Sallie Davis, Sarah Harper and Laura Mancin. Kelsey Neukum placed 10th at state last season and is back to lead Chestatee, along with Cara Martin, Melissa Reed, Rachel Smith and Celia Penado.
White County’s girls are young this season, but still have talent. School record holder Jessie Dotson, a sophomore, will lead the Lady Warriors this season. Other top runners include Michaela Mote, Maggie Blauvelt, Jordan Wilkes and Oriana Valencia.
Buford is looking to qualify for state this season after a fifth place spot at region in 2008. Dottie Kellogg, Rachel Kaplan, Liz Watkins, Amber Sitton, Carson Farrell and Cassie Oliver are the top runners this year for the Lady Wolves.
Amy Sims, Vanessa Hurtado and Maggie McCoy are looking to lead Banks County back to the state championships this season.
Top returning runners at Jefferson this season are Jessica Runkel, Lauren Phillips, Alison Missler, Kathy Buffington and Laura Price.
Jackson County returns five of seven runners last year’s Region 8-AAA runner-up team. Top returning runners are Brittany Aikens, Rachel Pasko, Lexie Miller, Katie Maiolo and Susie Diesch.