By R. Alan Richardson
If you want some positivity in your day, why not try meeting up with the Morgan County High School Cross-Country teams for a daily 6:15 a.m. practice at the MCHS track. Yes, that is well before sunup, and well before the start of school for teachers, coaches, and student-athletes. But you wouldn’t know it by the attitude of all involved.
That positive attitude starts at the top. Hang around girls’ Coach Erin Spinks for a few minutes, and you’d swear she’s been swizzling some high-powered java since midnight. She’s the epitome of optimism. Her upbeat demeanor rubs off on all those around her. She told us, “Hosting the region meet for the first time is super exciting. Hopefully, it will draw in the community to come out and cheer on our runners and the team.”
Not far behind in the enthusiasm department, if at all, is boys’ Coach Brian Johnson. He was telling stories about rattlesnakes before one old sportswriter could even get his eyes uncrossed and adjusted to the near pitch-black parking lot. He said, “Practice is going great. We’re super excited that we’re going to get to run this year. We have a larger team than usual so we as coaches are both excited about that and the new region we’ll be competing in.”
The gathering of runners continued until the appointed kickoff time. That same positive attitude could be seen and heard in each new arrival as they greeted one another for the day’s practice. We caught up with two of them before the morning grind. Senior James Martin was enthusiastic about his final season. He commented, “I started the sport in middle school, but then I started playing football. I realized it wasn’t something I wanted to do for the long-term. I enjoyed it, but decided to transition to cross-country. I love it. It challenges my body. It’s a unique sport because you’re always trying to beat yourself. I can always do better than the previous race. It’s been really cool over the years to watch my time fall.” Martin’s personal best in 2019 was in the low 20’s (20 minutes). He hopes to improve on that number in his closing season. “I hope to get my time down into the teen’s by Region to help the team. Our top five guys are really good and almost interchangeable. They’re a young group of guys, but anybody can step up and run number one on any given day. It’s a solid core. With the team being young, it encourages me as a senior to work hard to make sure I leave the program better than I found it. Hopefully, we can leave a legacy for future teams. We’ve got some great coaches to help us get there.”
Sophomore Drew Biersmith says she has been running cross-country since fourth grade with a recreation group and then with Morgan County Middle School before competing at MCHS last year. “The team is looking good,” she observed. “I think we will be stronger than we were last year. The new region (4-AAA) will be a new challenge for us since we’ve never seen many of them. My personal goal would be to run under 22 minutes this season. I want everybody on the team to do well and improve and run their best at Region and State. Hosting the region is exciting. Our course is great. It’s challenging, but it’s a great course.”
Cross-country is a grueling sport. Try running 5000 kilometers or about 3.1 miles against the clock, opponents, and yourself while you traverse hills, gulleys, ravines, ditches, fallen trees, creeks, and a sundry of other obstacles. It’s a challenge according to those MOCO runners involved. The challenge is sometimes between just you and your personal best time. It can also be between you and your will, your guts, or your heart. If you’ve never watched a high school cross-country meet, you’re missing out on some of the best high school sports has to offer.
The Bulldogs open their season Aug. 15 in a meet at Loganville Christian Academy. The home opener is scheduled for Aug. 29 with a nice group of competitive teams slated to take on the MCHS course at Bill Wood Park. The schedule highlight is the Region Meet, as is usual. What is unusual is that the Dogs will be hosting the Region Meet for the first time. According to the two coaches, not much is known at this point about the new 4-AAA Region competition that the teams will be competing in.
A quick glance at the 2019 boys’ results for AAAA finds Richmond Academy finishing the highest of new teams the Dogs will face at 27th and 749 points, Burke County finished 31st with 1005 points and Cross Creek 32nd with 1030. In AA it was Hephzibah finishing 22nd with 603 points. Comparing those numbers with the winning team in AAAA St. Pius X with 49 points and Oglethorpe County in AA at 95. Remember that the low score wins. That score is tallied by adding up the finishing spots of the top five finishers on the team. In other words, a perfect score would be 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5, or 15. A more telling statistic might be the average finish time as recorded by the state on Milesplit (a website for cross-country and track times). The average time for Richmond Academy was 20:52 (minutes:seconds). For Cross Creek it was 24:02 and for the winners in AAAA it was St. Pius at 17:08 and Oglethorpe County at 18:02.
The girls’ results for AA showed Westside, Augusta as the leading competition finishing 26th with 712 points and an average time of 32:30. AAAA had a similar result for the girls as the boys with Richmond Academy (851 points), Burke County (977 points), and Cross Creek (990 points) all finishing in the lower tier at 28, 30, and 31 respectively. In comparison, AA winner Bleckley County scored 49 points with a 21:56 average finish time while AAAA Champion St. Pius X had 46 points and an average of 19:37.
Morgan looks to improve on the 2019 season that ended without a State Meet invitation by not finishing in the top four teams in 8-AAA. However, their chances at a 2020 bid look extremely bright without the competition they faced in the likes of Jefferson, Hart County, Franklin County, Jackson County, and East Jackson. Jefferson finished sixth in the boys’ meet and Hart County took a ninth-place finish while all four of the girls’ squads that competed at State finished in the top 15 teams. Jefferson finished in fourth place in AAA behind three private schools from the Greater Atlanta area.
Spinks added, “We start out the schedule at Loganville Christian Academy on Aug. 15. It’s a big venue we usually attend that should give us a good picture of where we are. They are a great team. Our home opener is scheduled for Aug. 29. We’re anticipating having a good field of competitors for that one.”
“The kids are in super shape right now and ready to go. We are all looking forward to running in the new region and hosting the region meet. We need to start looking into the new region and our opponents. We are already being contacted by other schools about our first home meet later this month. It’s just a super exciting time for everyone involved,” said Johnson.