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Cross country preview: Area programs geared up for run at state
11 Area programs open season ranked in the top 10
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Flowery Branch cross country runners from left Miguel Martinez, Jake Shewbert, Nick Ashmead, Taylor Fiorello and Brian Young run around the Falcons’ track on Friday in Flowery Branch. The Falcons are ranked No. 2 in Class AAAAA going into the season. - photo by Jared Putnam

Flowery Branch opens the cross country season with both of its teams ranked in the top five of the Class AAAAA poll. With the early season expectations comes the pressure to perform for Falcon runners.

“The way we approach that type of pressure is we do our best not to be overconfident,” Flowery Branch coach Jimmy Sorrells said. “We really try to focus on trying to stay humble. We are thankful for the appreciation really, but we talk about it in a way where it is a just a ranking and that doesn’t necessarily mean that is who we are.”

Flowery Branch, which returns four seniors on both of its teams, is one of 11 area schools that have either one or both of its cross country teams ranked this preseason. Both of the Flowery Branch teams have the highest rankings among area teams: the boys are ranked second, the girls third.

Coming off a successful track season last spring, which saw its girls team finish fourth in the Class AAA state meet, North Hall is preparing for a successful cross country season.

The Trojan boys are ranked third in the preseason poll and return five of their top seven runners from a year ago. The Lady Trojans are ranked fifth in the preseason poll, despite returning just two runners from last year’s fifth-place team, including Makayla Ellis, who finished sixth.

“For the boys, I think we will be as good as we were last year,” North Hall head coach Drew Rogers said. “We lost our top two runners, but last year our strength was that we had a pack of seven that were pretty close together.

Those top two are gone, but we will have a good pack behind them this year that I think will be pretty solid.”

Over at Chestatee, the Lady War Eagles have three returning seniors and one sophomore that will carry the load for the girls team. Mix in a group of talented freshman and the team is looking to improve on a preseason No. 4 ranking and possibly compete for a Class AAAA state championship in Carrollton come November.

“We would like to move in a positive direction and possibly finish third or higher,” said War Eagles community coach Wes Wesley. “But that is a lot of ifs, though.”

One benefit area cross country teams have over other teams from around the state is the ability to practice on hilly and mountainous courses, ones that emulate the type of course the state championship meet is contested at Carrollton.

The benefit of being able to train and compete during the early portion of the season on tougher courses allows the runners to build a higher endurance and they know what to expect later on in the season.

Schools in South Georgia, which is regionally flat, do not have the same luxury and often struggle in the state meet on the mountainous terrain.

“We are really blessed with our practices,” said White County coach Sam Borg. “You can’t run anywhere without going up and down hills. Our long days are on hills and our short days are on hills. I think that helps a lot.”

“It helps you on any hilly course, and Carrollton has become a pretty hilly course,” Rogers said. “Running on hills builds leg strength and speed so that helps you.”

White County returns all seven of its varsity runners from last season, including reigning individual state champion Jenna Gearing, who is only a sophomore. The Lady Warriors are among the favorites in Class AAA.

“We’re going to try and close the gap on these private schools that are really tough on the state level,” Borg said. “St. Pius X and Blessed Trinity are 1-2 and they are tough to beat. We are trying to close the gap on those elite-level schools at state.”

Other area teams that start the season ranked in their respect classification polls are: Riverside Military boys (sixth, Class AA), Buford boys (10th, Class AAA), Lakeview Academy boys (eighth, Class A), West Hall girls (ninth, Class AAA), Jefferson girls (fifth, Class AA), Union County girls (fifth, Class AA) and Towns County girls (10th in Class A).

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