Tyrees Wiggins fielded the ball at his own 18-yard line, and he didn’t even need to make a cut.
Northern Nash’s kick returner took the ball 82 yards in the Knights’ Sept. 20 game against Southern Vance, scoring what would be the game-winning touchdown thanks to his speed.
Northern Nash cross country coach Jeff Dodrill already knew Wiggins could run, but the football team’s gain highlighted the cross country team’s loss. Wiggins opted for football instead of cross country this season and Jose and Emmanuel Sanchez moved to Durham, leaving Northern Nash without three of its top seven runners from a team that won the Big East Conference and finished third in the 3-A Eastern Regional in 2012.
“You take three of my top seven kids out from a team that finished third in the regionals, so we’ve got holes to fill with all underclassmen,” Dodrill said.
Dodrill had no choice but to insert inexperienced runners.
To his delight, the Knights’ perch atop the Big East has remained unchanged.
Stephen Whitehead is the heavy favorite to win the Big East individual title, and fellow sophomore Coleman Cherry consistently has been a top-10 finisher for the Knights.
Junior Jermain Jones already is back scoring top-10 finishes after taking a few years off from cross country, and Trey Watson is challenging the 19-minute mark as a freshman.
Watson was forced to jump to varsity in his first year in high school because the Knights didn’t have a choice. They needed him to be good this year, and he has been.
“You’re taking about a freshman running with people who have been running for four, five years, … and I started in seventh grade, so I’ve only been running for a couple years, then I have to jump in with varsity,” Watson said. “You kind of get pushed to run faster with these people running.”
Junior Shawn Murphy isn’t far behind, and the Knights still are winning meets.
Top-two runner Christian Tippette has missed races with a knee infection, but even his absence hasn’t derailed Northern Nash.
“That’s where Trey comes in. That’s where Shawn comes in. That’s where Jermain comes in. Kids who have never run cross country at the high-school level are contributing and making us successful,” Dodrill said. “Then, when we take Christian out of the mix, those kids step up more.”
Everyone pushes everyone, and the team has improved as a result.
Watson and Jones have sparked Cherry, who has pushed them right back.
“My times have been improving pretty much every race, and these guys have pushed me, even coming in their first years,” Cherry said of Watson and Jones.
That cluster of Knights at the back end of the top 10 keeps running faster and faster, and if it looks like they’re chasing each other – well, they are.
“He doesn’t want us to pass him,” Jones said of Cherry. “We push him, and he pushes us. It’s a mutual thing.”
The bond has become the most important part of the season for Northern Nash.
With Whitehead leading the way, diets have changed for the better, times have improved and the team has grown closer.
“We’re like brothers. From last year to this year, this team is like brothers,” Whitehead said. “Last year, we were all running together and knew each other, but we’re like brothers this year.”
Tippette should return soon for Northern Nash, which figures to be just as strong as it was last year.
Dodrill said it’s no secret that the Knights’ success comes from the closeness of the team.
That’s why his inexperienced runners were able to fill the gaps, he said.
“That’s the thing with cross country, the more you feel like a team, the more you thrive off it,” Dodrill said. “Now that those guys are contributing and everybody’s patting them on the back and they feel like, ‘Hey, I’m doing something. I’m helping.’”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com