BY MIKE BLACKERBY
Heading into the 2018 season, Patrick Gildea knew the future was bright for West High School’s girls cross country team.
He just didn’t know his girls would arrive so far ahead of schedule.
After finishing second to Farragut at the Region 2 meet on Oct. 25 in Knoxville, West shocked the field nine days later as the Lady Rebels captured the Division I Large Class state championship at Percy Warner Park in Nashville.
West’s girls won their only other state cross country team championship in 1998.
“It pleasantly surprised the heck out of me,” said Gildea, the 5Star Preps girls cross country coach of the year.
The Lady Rebels totaled 130 points to beat out Farragut (155) and Brentwood (168) for the top spot.
“I thought we were a year away from being in that position, and things just really came together,” he continued.
“Coming into the race I thought finishing in the top five or making it to the podium (top three) would be a really good day.”
A mix of newcomers and veteran runners combined to pull off the unlikely state championship for West.
Freshman Marley Townsend covered the 3.1-mile Steeplechase Course in 19:08.63 to place ninth and lead the way for the Lady Rebels.
Senior Elizabeth Babb followed in 15th place (19:26.71). Next was freshman Emma Dewalt (28th, 20:01.59) trailed by juniors Elisabeth Bernard (48th, 20:35.82) and Macy Kraslawsky (83rd, 21:17.27).
“We were excellent across the board,” said Gildea.
“Marley was kind of an entity by herself. Collectively, our Nos. 2-through-5 runners really solidified the day.
“Elizabeth Babb was 34th her junior year and she finished 15th as a senior. I really thought Emma Dewalt did an excellent job. I could pinpoint every single runner.”
As the race unfolded, Gildea said he had no idea West was running as well as it was.
He was equally stunned when word of a West victory began to trickle out.
He didn’t believe it, at first.
“Someone called me on the phone and told me we had won. I thought there has got to be something wrong or they’re not finished with the scoring. It took me by surprise.”
Gildea said his team seemed equally in a daze.
“It didn’t seem like the girls could comprehend and process it, even as they walked off the (victory) stage,” he said.
“The fact that it all came together was an excellent surprise.”
BRYAN BROWN, BOYS COACH OF THE YEAR
The 2018 high school cross country season was an affirmation that the talent pipeline never seems to run dry at Hardin Valley Academy.
Despite being led by five underclassmen, the Hardin Valley boys won the Region 2 title and finished fifth in the Division I Large Class state championships at Percy Warner Park in Nashville.
Hardin Valley, in just its 11th season of cross country under founding coach Bryan Brown, won its fourth region team title and garnered its sixth top-five finish at the state meet.
“I thought they could be this good, but I didn’t think we would be as consistent and as tight as a group,” said Brown, whose boys won their only state cross country team title in 2010.
“We had a 30-second split in most of our races during the year where we had six or seven guys tied in there together.”
The Region 2 meet was a good case in point as the Hawks’ top five runners finished in a 33-second window.
Three freshmen – Kaden Keller (ninth, 17:04), Mitchell McCown (10th, 17:09) and Nathan Hillis (12th, 17:11) led the way for Hardin Valley.
Sophomores Nate Lawson (17th, 17:26) and Alex Brittain (21st, 17:37) were the other two scorers as the Hawks registered 68 points to Farragut’s 78.
There was a 43-second gap between Hardin Valley’s first and fifth finishers at state. Keller led the way with his 16:52.58 clocking, good for 32nd place.
“Those young guys did a great job,” said Brown.
“Keller had a really good freshman year and so did McCown. Hillis was the top finisher in four of our races. We had a mix of really good senior leadership too, even though they weren’t the guys scoring.”
Hardin Valley had a school-record 18 freshman boys on its cross country team.
“It was a good year to keep me fresh,” said Brown.
“I had to re-explain everything that had been second nature the last seven or eight years.”
With 33 of his 36 boys returning in 2019, Brown said the Hawks can be as good as they want.
“As long as they stay hungry and want to keep improving, things look good,” he said.
“Each team is unique. For us to do well, I tell them that they have to keep bringing it. They’re not there yet.”