With the reshuffling of local high school sports regions, many teams will be facing new challenges this season but few will be facing the issues that the Flowery Branch cross country teams will.
After winning the boys’ 2008 and 2009 Class AAA state championship, the Falcons will be moving up to Class AAAA this season and will be facing new, tougher opponents. Coach Jimmy Sorrells believes that his boys team will be able to keep up their normal level of competition.
“I believe we have the kids here at the school that can do that,” he said.
On top of moving to a higher classification, Flowery Branch will also be facing the loss of David Farist, who placed first for the Falcons at last year’s state meet and fifth overall.
Although the graduation of a valuable team member affects any school, the Falcons find themselves in position to reload.
With seniors A.J. Clendennin, Drew Garland, Maurice Riden and Brandon Sousa back, experience should not be an issue; all four boys have won state cross country titles before.
“Those guys are going to be our leaders this season,” Sorrells said. “And the younger guys are going to have to step up.”
Using runners in competitions at an early age has allowed Sorrells to build a program where those spots that are lost to graduation are easily filled. His philosophy is simple: improve and replace.
“The idea is that the runners who were the eight, nine and ten runners last season won’t be that far behind the top seven,” Sorrells said. “So we hope that over time and with hard work they can be ready to step up and replace those runners that we lose.”
As far as the team being as strong this season as it was in 2009, Riden believes there is no question. “We definitely expect the team to make it back (to state),” Riden said. “With all of our hard work, we had better.”
Riden was injured during last season, a stress fracture to the right ankle, but feels that he will be in good condition for this season after participating in track during the spring.
“I’m all the way back from my ankle, Riden said. “After an injury like that, you come back with a vengeance.”
Colleges such as Troy University and the University of Tennessee have shown interest in the senior who helped the Falcons win the title in 2008 as a sophomore.
The Lady Falcons, who finished third in Class AAA last season, will be facing an even tougher challenge than the boys team, replacing their top four finishers at the state meet, including Kiara Woods, who is now running for the University of Georgia.
“There is no experience,” Sorrells said. “Only two or three girls are back who ran last season.”
One runner that didn’t run last season will be looked at as a leader for the Lady Falcons in 2010.
Track star Erika Rucker, who was voted The Times’ 2010 Girls Track Athlete of the Year, has joined the cross country team this season. And Sorrells has seen immediate results from Rucker’s move.
“Believe it or not, she’s the number one runner on our roster right now,” Sorrells said.
The Lady Falcons will only field one senior this season, with the majority of the team being sophomores and freshman. That doesn’t have Sorrells too worried though, he believes the young runners are Flowery Branch are “very talented.”
“Most of our roster is completely young and completely inexperienced to cross country, but to be honest with you, that’s exciting,” Sorrells said.
The coach knows that winning a state championship this season may not be high on the list of probabilities for the team. But he also knows that good programs have years in which getting young athletes as much experience as possible becomes the key focus.
“As a coach you want to compete for those trophies but there comes a time where you have to concentrate on rebuilding,” Sorrells said.
The first test of that rebuilding will come on Aug. 28, when the boys and girls teams travel to Douglas County to participate in the Bob Blastow Early Bird meet.
That meet will feature both Class AAA and Class AAAA opponents, and should give Flowery Branch an opportunity to see how they match up against each. Class-AAA’s St. Pius X, Lambert and Eagle’s Landing had top-10 runners in last year’s state meet and all three teams will be in attendance.
The Falcons’ biggest rival over the past few seasons, North Hall, is in a new region as well.
After placing second in the state last season, The Trojans are now apart of Region 8-AAA and will be joined by seven of their region members in last year’s 7-AAA.
The loss of recent graduate Ty McCormack will be one challenge that the Trojans will have to face in 2010. McCormack finished second in the state last season and will be running for Clemson University this fall.
While his loss hurts, the fourth-place finisher at state and the second from North Hall, Cody Barger, is back and will be the captain of a squad that hopes to get back in a position to win state.
In Class AA, the Dawson County girls will try to make another run in 2010 after finishing fourth in 2009 at the state meet. To do so, they must replace three of their top four runners: Emily Beusse, Kershin Hilnster and Kristan Morgan.
The Lady Tigers do get their top runner back from 2009, Madalyn Walters, who placed fifth in the state meet.