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Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- Don't challenge Taylor Withers at Scrabble.

He's pretty intense at board games.

"When I play Scrabble with my sister it's pretty serious. I'm extremely competitive no matter what it is," said Withers, who runs and swims better than he spells.

Spell "competitive" with all caps for Withers and toss an exclamation point at the end of it -- just like the exclamation point he put at the end of his 2009 cross country season.

Withers had a year he'll never forget this fall, running right into the history books at Deerfield-Windsor School, where he became DWS' first runner to make the GISA All-State team and finish higher in the state meet than anyone in the school's history.

And he's only a junior.

That's why he is the 2009 Herald Player of the Year for boys cross country.

And Withers is used to being on top.

Withers, the two-time Herald POY for boys swimming, not only won his second cross country regional title in a row, he finished fifth at the GISA state meet with a personal best -- and school record time -- of 17:07.

To appreciate just how far and how fast Withers came this season, consider this: He ran the state meet course in Macon three times this season and never broke 18 minutes.

"That's my least favorite course,'' Withers said. "I surprised myself at state. I didn't see that coming.''

No one did.

"It was phenomenal,'' DWS cross country coach Joe Bishop said. "I knew he was going to have a good year, but I had no idea he would have this kind of year. I don't think anyone could have predicted that 17:07.

"He did it because of hard work. He has the will to get up and swim in the wee hours every morning and then run at practice. He's the hardest working, most singularly focused athlete I've ever met.''


Try getting up at 5:30 a.m. every day and swimming two miles before school, and then after acing every class -- that's right, Withers is a 4.0 student -- go out and run five miles in the afternoon.

He's also evidently an efficiency expert.

"I do my homework at school,'' Withers said. "I have time to date and do all the normal things, hang out with my friends ..."

That spark and push which makes Withers who he is comes from a family that knows all about excelling -- all about reaching for more. Both his parents graduated from West Point and his sister, Brooke, is a junior at West Point.

But don't look for Withers to run off to the Point just yet.

He's taking his time.

"I'll probably visit there, but it's not at the top of my list,'' he said. "At the top right now are North Carolina and Virginia Tech.''

Withers is the defending 50-free state champ, and there's talk in the family of him moving on to triathlons. Swimming is definitely in his future in college.

He can juggle running, swimming, his studies and humility all at the same time. Just listen to why Withers believes he had such a breakout season this fall, which included a second place finish at the Disney World Classic Cross Country Race in Orlando.

"The biggest difference this year was when one of our JV runners, Ofe Ariyo, moved up to varsity,'' Withers said. "He really pushed me the whole year. Before, I would win all the (local) meets easily. But this year I had to work in every race just to be the first one on my team.

"That's what I remember the most about this year.''