The rebuilding of Northern Nash’s cross country program has been swift, and if all goes according to plan, the payoff could come this fall.
It was only three years ago that the Knights had only seven boys on its roster.
Even worse, there were only four girls on the other squad, which wasn’t enough for the Knights to score as a team.
Three years of competition, encouraging athletes to join the team, and building a family-like atmosphere has helped Northern Nash coach Jeff Dodrill raise expectations for both teams.
This season, the boys are not only the outright favorites in the Big East Conference, but they also have lofty goals for the state meet. The girls, youthful and talented at the same time, are adding blocks to what could be a multi-year run of success.
“I knew with the boys who were freshmen three years ago that we would take our lumps, but by the time they were seniors, we’d be competing with the top kids and teams in the state,” Dodrill said.
Northern Nash has won back-to-back Big East Conference championships, and they have finished 13th and 14th during that span at the NCHSAA 3-A state meet.
This season’s team might be the deepest the program has ever been in Dodrill’s 24 seasons at the school.
2013 Telegram All-Area Runner of the Year Stephen Whitehead returns for his junior season.
Senior Christian Tippette, one of two remaining seniors from Dodrill’s lean 2011 season – the other is Jermain Jones – is healthy this season.
Tippette ran a 16:38 in a meet Monday afternoon, which is the same time he ran at the state meet last season.
Dodrill said Whitehead and Tippette are both capable of running sub-16 minute times this season.
Add in Jones, Coleman Cherry, Jordan Lucas and Faith Christian transfter Daniel Belton, and the Knights have more than a handful of runners who can put up 17-minute times.
“This is the big year,” Dodrill said. “They’ve put in the mileage over the summer. They know this is the year to do something special. They are holdng each other accountable. They don’t want to let their teammates down.”
Fourteen members of the team attended a running camp in Asheville this summer.
In addition to training, the squad has spent the summer having pool parties, attending water parks and they even celebrated Dodrill’s birthday last month by having cupcakes after a training session.
“We’re breeding cross country,” Dodrill said of the atmosphere.
Northern Nash has never finished better than sixth in the state, and they believe a top-10 finish is possible in November.
The Knights also want to capture a regional title that has eluded them the past two seasons.
Dodrill said he considers Rocky Mount High the favorite on the girls’ side.
The Gryphons return junior Mary McCall Leland and sophomore Barkley Browder to add along with a talented freshman class who ran at Edwards Middle School last season.
Nash Central loses four-time Telegram All-Area runner of the year Michaela Williams (Gardner-Webb).
1. Stephen Whitehead, Jr., Northern Nash: The 2013 Telegram All-Area Boys’ Runner of the Year was the Big East champion last season, and he finished 20th at the 3-A state meet.
2. Christian Tippette, Sr., Northern Nash: If Tippette can run injury free this season, he could challenge Whitehead for the top Big East spot. He was the league’s runner-up finisher a season ago.
3. Mary McCall Leland, Jr., Rocky Mount High: Leland was the league’s runner-up finisher a season ago, and she placed 13th at the 3-A Eastern Regional.
4. Caitlyn Vester, So., Rocky Mount Academy:Vester placed fourth in the conference last season, and her improvement could help the Eagles become a contender in a new league this fall.
5. Grayson Tanner, Fr., Northern Nash: Tanner was the middle school conference champion last season, and she already has had an immediate impact on the Knights’ talented lineup.
Jessie H. Nunery can be reached at 407-9959 or firstname.lastname@example.org