For North Hall cross country, the seniors set the pace — everyone else just follows their lead.
The Trojans, who won a state championship in 2006 and saw both boys and girls finish as state runners-up a year ago, entered the 2011 season ranked No. 3 in the state in Class AAA (the girls were No. 7) despite the loss of two of their top runners.
But replacing top talent has become a bit of an art for the team, and Trojans coach Drew Rogers said that it all starts with the culture of hard work fostered by his more experienced runners.
A year ago, that was senior Cody Barger. Barger, the Gatorade Runner of the Year for the state of Georgia, was so committed to the team’s success that he would pick up teammates for practices over the summer when they couldn’t make it on their own.
Before that it was Ty McCormack, and Nolan Clark before him.
“We’ve had a different star, if you want to call them that, every year,” Rogers said. “We haven’t had a single person for, I guess, five years now. But we’ve had a number of guys who move up from experience, following the others’ lead, and take over the top spot. We’ve got a new one this year, and we’ll have another one next year, too.”
This year it’s senior Brandon Lawson.
Already one of the team’s top runners a year ago, Lawson could be one of the top runners in the state in 2011, Trojan assistant Art DaCosta said.
“He’ll be in that race for the title,” he said. “But top five, certainly.”
With Lawson taking over the top spot and, perhaps, a deeper squad of runners, Rogers added that his team looks to have as good a chance as ever this year.
“You’d think we’d be down this year,” he said. “We lost the runner of the year and another of our top five, but I think we’re as deep or better than we were last year.”
The team’s yearly success begins with the example set by the older runners, who show the younger team members the level of commitment that success in the sport requires.
Lawson said that the older runners before him are a big reason for his success today.
“Cody left a great impression on a lot of our younger runners last year,” he said, “and I think Ty and Nolan probably had a great impression on me as well. I think, ever since my freshman year, that’s how it’s always been.”
Rogers stressed how important that quality is for his team.
“Those top runners we’ve had have all been very good runners,” he said. “But more important than that, they’ve been great leaders. Like I said, Cody — he was a top runner in the state, but, more importantly, he was a leader.”
In addition to the example set by senior leaders, Rogers also credits the sense of teamwork that surrounds the program.
In a sport based largely on individual performances in races, teammates often rely on each other on practice days.
It’s during this time, Rogers said, that his teams are so successful in helping each other excel past their perceived point of endurance.
“It is an individual sport when you’re out there competing,” he said. “But on days like today or in workouts, that’s when all the teamwork comes. When they go run, they go out in a pack. When someone’s not feeling good, they pull them up, and they get them going.”
Now a senior, Lawson is among those leaders in practice.
“I always tell everyone we’re chasing the dream,” he said. “We want to be the dream team — want to win state.”
Everything the team does, however — more than the teamwork or the senior leadership — comes down to the level of dedication in the runners.
“We have runners that are dedicated and they enjoy doing the hard work,” DaCosta said. “They complain about it when they’re doing it, but they’re proud of what they do, and it shows in the race.”
And, Lawson said, it’s all worth it if the teams can reach their ultimate goals.
“This is possibly the best team I’ve been on,” he said. “We can be No. 1.”