TRULY AMAZING: Westover's Taylor runs fastest girls time in Pats history at annual Cross County Invitational

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- The idea was for Ericka Taylor to somehow find the race of her life, the one that would land her in the middle of the conversation about the best cross country runners in the history of Westover High School.

She knew it. Her coach knew it. Every distance runner in the area knew Taylor might have a chance to break 20 minutes in the 29th Annual Westover Relays Saturday morning.

"I think she can do it,'' Westover cross country coach Harley Calhoun said on Thursday. "She's got a chance to become the fourth girl in Westover's history to run under 20 minutes.''

That's what Calhoun said on Thursday.

But something happened to Taylor out there in the pecan orchard that shades and cools the runners on one of the most scenic cross country course in Georgia. Somewhere amid the trees and an army of big-time runners from Atlanta, Taylor reached down and found something extra, something special -- something she didn't even know was there.

"It was like a dream,'' Taylor said later after the race had ended, after both of her feet -- and her emotions -- had solidly hit the ground.

She busted (that's right, in a full sprint) across the finish line in a time of 18 minutes and 59 seconds, the fastest time in the 32-year-old history of Westover cross country, and a time that Calhoun believes might be the fastest ever in Southwest Georgia.

"She wanted to break 20,'' Calhoun said with a smile. "And she skipped right past 19.''

Even Westover principal William Chunn was shaking his head.

"We've had a lot of great ones at Westover," said Chunn, a former track coach. "But for her to accomplish that feat really says something. And she is only going to get better.''

That's right, Taylor is a only a sophomore, barely 16.

"I want to win state. I never thought about wining state until (after Saturday), but ... I hope I win it,'' said Taylor, whose best time had been 20:43, and she didn't break it -- she shattered it. "It feels great. It makes me feel so good inside. It energizes me. Now I know I can run under 19 minutes. I think someday I can go under 18 minutes. I know I can.''

She might do it before she leaves Westover.

Her school record would have won any meet south of Atlanta, but this was the Westover Relays, which draws the best talent from all over Georgia, including 14 talented boys and girls programs from Atlanta that marched through the pecan trees like Sherman.

Class AAAAA North Gwinnett, the top program in Georgia and ranked 22nd in the nation, won the girls meet with a startling 28 points, and St. Pius, a private school powerhouse, ran away with the boys title with 38 points.

Taylor's record time was good enough for fourth place, behind North Gwinnett's Jordan Humphrey, who won the title in 18:26 and Rose Howell, who was third at 18:44. Lovett's Hailey Branch was second (18:37).

"Those are three of the top runners in Georgia,'' Calhoun said. "Ericka might just be the best Class AAA runner in the state. We'll find out (in the state meet later).''

Taylor said the cream-of-the-crop talent from Atlanta helped.

"I had people pushing me,'' she said. "They pushed me because they were faster, and it made me work harder.''

She broke from the pack at the half-mile mark and joined a group of 10 runners, who didn't look back. By the time she hit the mile marker, Taylor made her move to sixth place, and stayed there until the final 400 meters when she caught her first sight of the finish line and broke into a sprint, passing the only two runners she could see to finish fourth.

"I didn't know I could go that fast," Taylor said. "I really sprinted the last 50 yards. It was hard because my legs were hurting. They wanted to fall off. I could feel a shot of pain in both of my thighs.

"It felt great to finish strong. When they told me my time, I didn't jump up and down or do anything. I just smiled. I could barely breathe from being so tired.''

Out of 32 teams competing, Westover's girls were the top area team, finishing 14th in the meet. Lee County, led by Laine Ellington's 56th place finish, was next at 18th.

Locally, Monroe's Davone Anduze finished 58th, Bainbridge's Paige Braswell was 87th and Lee County's Lauren Toskey finished 99th.

Lee County's Jacob Kennedy ran the best time for the area boys, finishing 35th in 16:42.The Westover boys saw three runners nail down PRs (personal records): Greg Thorne finished 37th with a PR of 16:46. Cole Kester was 58th with a PR of 17:19 and Sagar Patel was 71st with a PR 17:31.

Westover's boys finished 14th in the meet. Bainbridge was 20th, Monroe 23rd, Lee County was 25th and Albany finished 26th.

But the day belonged to Taylor, who may be on her way to even greater tomorrows.

"We just don't know how good she is going to be,'' Calhoun said. "She's special.''