CARROLLTON — The tension was palpable as the Flowery Branch High boys cross country team awaited word on whether it had won a second consecutive state championship Saturday at Carrollton High.
While the verdict — a second-place finish seven points behind Class AAAAA champion Clarkston — wasn't what the Falcons had hoped for, coach Jimmy Sorrells said he was happy that his group earned another high finish that was a spot ahead of its pre-race ranking.
"They did a great job, and I can't tell them how many times I'm proud of them," Sorrells said. "They think I'm upset. I'm patting them on the back."
Jake Shewbert's fourth-place finish in 16:37.02 paced Flowery Branch, which also had its girls team place fifth.
"I just went out there and had the race of my life," Shewbert said. "When it started to hurt, I was like, 'My brothers are out there pushing hard and I'm going to do the same.'"
Lady Falcons senior Cassie Ward may have experienced one of the more adventurous runs of the day in one of the chillier races at 8:25 a.m. Early in the race, a fellow competitor stepped on her heel, leaving only the front part of her foot in her shoe. Eventually, once her coach assured her it wouldn't mess up her timing chip, Ward kicked the shoe off midway through the race and finished wearing just one of her shoes.
"My foot was pretty numb. It was pretty cold," Ward said.
"I stepped on some pointy root, and I could feel my foot perfectly fine after that. It hurt so bad. It was awful."
She said she was worried someone would step on her foot, so she adjusted her running to try to avoid that possibility.
But Ward kept going, helped in large part by racing alongside teammates who encouraged her, to take 35th (21:36.8) out of 221 finishers in her classification. Mariah Millsap's 25th-place finish (21.20.9) and Hailey Pierson taking 33rd (21:33.4) marked the top two performances as the Flowery Branch girls jumped from 13th in 2013 to fifth this season.
"It helps a lot to be able to push through with each other," Ward said.
Lakeview Academy senior Lewis Brooks took third place in the Class A boys-private race with a time of 17:13.95.
White County junior Jenna Gearing, a two-time AAA state champ, finished fourth in a rapid-fire Class AAAA girls race won by Marist senior Morgan Ilse, her third title, as Ilse's teammates Josie Wirtz and Caitie Faust capped a Marist sweep of the top three. Chestatee freshman Lindsey Grater took fifth behind the Marist trio and Gearing.
"This was pretty much my dream, to be amongst the top at state," Grater said.
While Gearing would have preferred a higher individual finish, she noted how freshman teammate Kiernan Schmidt passed nine runners on the final slope to put White County's girls on the podium with a fourth-place AAAA finish.
"The thing that was worrying me the most when I got fourth was team because I knew if I didn't do my part of team, we might not get a chance on podium," Gearing said. "Luckily, we had a little freshman come up and help us in the end."
Buford's girls were sixth and Johnson's eighth in Class AAAA, with fellow 8-AAAA competitor North Oconee fifth.
North Hall senior Quintin Miles used a patient approach to work from outside the top 10 to fourth (16:38.34) in Class AAAA boys, leading the Trojans to a sixth-place team finish.
"It's a little disappointing. We were shooting for podium," Miles said. "Everyone just ran really well today, and we didn't necessarily have the race we should have."
Johnson's Junior Suarez, a junior who finished second in Region 8-AAAA behind Miles and was Hall County champion, took 11th individually as the Knights boys went from 16th a season ago to seventh Saturday, right where they were ranked entering the meet.
"We beat all of our times from last year. We had runners take two minutes off their times from the same course last year," Johnson coach Lauren Carter said. "We're making improvements, and next year we're going to keep the bulk of this team."
Chestatee's boys took 11th place in Class AAAA.
Gainesville's boys finished 12th in Class AAAAA, paced by Juan Ortega in ninth (16:44.97).
Banks County's Jose Diaz was eighth (17:22.22) in AAA boys and Jefferson's Addison Cochran 13th (17:41.40). Banks County, West Hall, Dawson County and Jefferson took spots 7-10 in the team standings, respectively.
Banks County's Makayla Hewell finished seventh (20:30.25) in Class AAA girls competition, and Jefferson's Maggie Dyer was 19th (22:02.28). Dawson County's girls claimed fifth, Jefferson seventh and Banks County eighth in the team standings.
Union County junior Emma Garrison, who battled shin splints all season, missed out on a third consecutive Class AA state title in the girls race, finishing 16th overall with a time of 21:53.00. The Lady Panthers took 10th place in the team standings.
Union County's boys placed sixth in the Class AA boys race. Lance Underwood led the Panthers with a time of 18:29.85, good enough for 20th place individually.
Riverside Military finished seven spots behind the Union County boys in 13th place. Lexx Joya came in 35th overall for the Eagles in a time of 19:01.20.
Towns County's girls won the Class A-public behind individual champion Hannah Whitehead, who finished in a time of 21:47.95 Taralee Arrowood came in sixth for the Lady Indians at the 24:11.27 mark.
Commerce took runner-up honors in the Class A-public girls race with the help of a second place finish by Kate Massey, who crossed the finish line with a time of 22:34.18.
Paced by Tyler Grimsley's ninth place individual finish (19:42.26), Towns County's boys earned second place in the boys race. Commerce finished fifth, paced by Jose Rodriguez, who also took fifth individually (19:17.22).