By the first couple of Big East Conference cross country races, it was apparent to coaches and runners that Rocky Mount High’s girls’ squad and Northern Nash’s boys’ team were headed for league championships.
Each school in fact did cruise to Big East titles in last week’s conference finale, but those accomplishments quickly have lost any relevance for what lies ahead Saturday.
When the NCHSAA 3-A Eastern Regional meet begins at 10:30 a.m. at Red Oak Middle School, the Gryphons and Knights will have to fight for every position possible if they are going to finish in the top four of their races, and most important, earn a spot in next week’s state championship meet.
“We finished fifth the last two years, and that was kind of heartbreaking,” Rocky Mount High coach Dee Anna Davis said. “The girls want to make it to states, but you have to perform on Saturday and earn that right to go.”
Behind runners including Mary McCall Leland, Barkley Browder and Alexis Bryant, the Gryphons never struggled to win a handful of Big East races this fall.
Rocky Mount is among the better teams in the field, but West Carteret is the favorite in a group that includes Swansboro and Havelock.
What could separate the Gryphons from any teams who might outlast them for the fourth and final spot is the squad’s three through seven runners.
Kaitlin Jacob, Schuyler Moss, Stephanie Morales and Autumn Pilgreen will be heavily counted upon to have strong races and earn Rocky Mount state championship-advancing points.
“We have been consistent,” Davis said. “That’s not to say all of the girls have been running well. Our first three have been strong all year, but our back four will make the difference.”
Coach Jeff Dodrill’s Knights will be in a similar position when the starting gun fires for the boys’ race.
West Carteret, Jacksonville White Oak, Topsail and Western Harnett are among the top boys’ teams that will compete.
Dodrill said he believes his team falls somewhere in that mix, but it will need significant performances from runners outside of its top two (Stephen Whitehead, Christian Tippette).
Dodrill is looking for each of his runners – Whitehead and Tippette included – to run between 15-20 seconds faster Saturday.
The longtime Knights coach has closely studied the times of his team and its top opponents, and he sees scenarios where Northern Nash could finish anywhere from third to sixth.
“If each person does their job, the team will be successful,” Dodrill said. “I can’t have three guys running and two backing off.”
There will be 164 runners in the boys’ race. Northern Nash has the advantage of running on its home course, but West Carteret already has won at Red Oak this season when it captured the Knights Invitational in September.
Saturday’s race is not an all-or-nothing affair for the top two teams, but there only will be precious seconds that separate the final pair of teams who advance to the state meet in Kernersville.
“We want our body to do the work,” Dodrill said. “We have to take our brains out of the equation and say, ‘I think I can. I’m going to. I will.’ That’s the mentality we’re taking into it.”
Jessie H. Nunery can be reached at 407-9959 or email@example.com