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High school cross country: North Hall's O'Bryant steers deep group of runners in 2022
Lady Trojans return four talented distance athletes who will make them a contender at state this fall
Cross country 2021
North Hall's Clodagh O'Bryant nears the finish line at the Hall County Championship at the North Hall Community Center on Sept. 19, 2022 in Gainesville. Photo by Bill Murphy

It’s been said by many high school coaches that some of an athlete’s biggest growth – whether it’s physically or emotionally – occurs between their freshman and sophomore seasons.

If that’s true, then Clodagh O’Bryant is in for a huge year on the cross country trails for North Hall in 2022.

The Trojans’ sophomore is already off to a strong start after placing second in the varsity girls race in a time of 20 minutes, 1.78 seconds to lead a group of four runners in the top seven and all five starters in the top 20 in North Hall’s team championship at the Kosh Klassic Aug. 20 at the Westminster School in Atlanta.

That time was quite a bit off her personal-best time of 18:46.56 in last year’s Georgia High School Meet of Champions race in which she placed 12th last November.

But for her first race of the 2022 campaign, O’Bryant was quite pleased with Saturday’s outing.

“I think it was a pretty good race,” O’Bryant said. “(North Hall) Coach (Sam) Borg said we were kind of in training for that race, so we just had a harder week (in practice). So I wasn’t kind of stretched for it, but I think it was a pretty good race. I’m happy with it.”

Borg was pretty happy with O’Bryant’s run, as well, especially since he is starting to see some of the growth in her from what was an impressive high school debut season in 2021. 

O’Bryant broke 20 minutes in all but one race last year — her fourth-place finish (20:04.9) in Class 3A at state, which led the Trojans to a fifth-place team finish.

In addition, O’Bryant is coming off winning the Hall County title (18:54) and Region 7-3A championship. 

That doesn’t mean there weren’t ups and downs for O’Bryant, particularly with some summer and early-season training, the likes of which she hadn’t really experienced.

However, that’s one area where the growth Borg was looking for out of her has come in handy, and portends even bigger things for her and the Trojans this fall.

“She’s definitely tougher with our interval work that we do,” Borg said. “Last year, she was a little girl about to be a freshman. The interval work at practice kind of kicked her tail. It was pretty tough. Now she’s handling it much better, and he’s really been a machine on our workouts. That’s when you know she’s ready to explode, when she can do that at practice. When you’re doing in the thousands or 1200-meter repeats at practice and there are hills involved, that really separates the toughness and the weakness.

“She’s so much stronger this summer than she was last summer, to put it in a nutshell. And then she’s also matured a lot emotionally. I think last year, she also dealt with some race-day nerves, and just being a ninth-grade girl. She’s kind of fallen in love with her teammates more and made it more about the team.”

For her part, O’Bryant points to a strong support system she had that helped her adapt to the training and demands of high school cross country, as well as the normal race-day jitters that most runners experience.

In addition to Borg and his staff and her Trojan teammates, she has a family with an extensive track and cross country background to lean on, including parents Tom and Emily, both of whom ran collegiately at Tennessee-Chattanooga, brother Eamonn, currently a sophomore for the Moccasins cross country team, and sisters Sinead, who ran collegiately at Augusta University, and Gillian, who ran in high school at White County.

“Yeah, they’re really good about (that) just because I think they understand how scary it can feel,” O’Bryant said. “They help a lot just calming me down and helping me know that a runner’s not always going to have their best days. There will be bad days. Just remember to get through it.”

While it seems natural that O’Bryant followed in the footsteps of her parents and older siblings, she says they never pressured her to continue the family’s running tradition.

But once she was introduced to both track and cross country running about four years ago, she was hooked.

“I really thought it was cool, but my parents asked me if I wanted to race around sixth grade,” O’Bryant recalled. “I’d never really trained or anything, but I just ran one (race), and I really liked it. I thought it was fun. … I got serious in eighth grade – that’s when I started training.”

“They’re really good about not putting too much pressure on me, and just telling me to enjoy it. It’s only high school, so do it for fun while you can. Take it seriously when I need to with the training and getting ready for practices and everything.”

As much fun as O’Bryant has had with high school cross country and track, that doesn’t mean she isn’t serious about it and doesn’t have aspirations of running in college.

Based on her performances both on the trail and the track, that is a very realistic goal.

In addition to her strong freshman cross country season, O’Bryant also had a big season on the track, breaking the school records in the 800, 1600 and 3200-meter runs, as well as placing third at the Class 3A state meet in the 1600 and 3200.

And Borg has set the bar pretty high for her and her Trojan teammates like fellow sophomores Harleigh Smith and Jessie Dubnik, and junior Abi Moore.

“We have four Division I (college-potential) girls on our team (this season), so it’s going to be a really special season for North Hall’s girls, and (O’Bryant) is the leader of it,” Borg said. “She’s our lead dog, and the other girls kind of follow her and pace off of her. So she has a very important role in our team, but I love the she loves the team. Cross country is sweet because she’s running not just for herself, but she’s running for the whole team. She gets really excited when the team is successful.”

In fact, 2022 should be season filled with exciting possibilities for several of Hall County’s girls and boys teams.

In addition to North Hall, the Flowery Branch and Cherokee Bluff girls are coming off top-10 finishes at state in the team competitions, though both will be competing in different classifications this fall.

The Falcons have moved up to 5A, while the Bears have ascended to Class 4A.

Meanwhile, Chestatee’s boys are again stacked and trying to make it three straight state titles in Class 4A.

Returning in 2022, the War Eagles are paced by senior Aaron Retana, and juniors Javier Rebollar and Noah Peters, all top-20 finishers at the state meet last season.

However, Chestatee will no longer have the depth anchored by twin brothers Garrett and Gavin Grater, second and fourth at state last year respectively, since both have now graduated.

Meanwhile, in Class 6A, Gainesville senior John Jessup is coming off a phenomenal track and field season, and will likely make noise also in cross country.

Also, in Class 4A, Cherokee Bluff’s Adison Myers, a senior, will be in contention after finishing seventh at state in 2021.

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