ALBANY -- Fresh off their Region 1-AAA victory a week ago in Hawkinsville, the Deerfield girls cross country team will set its sights a little higher this weekend when they head to the GISA all-classes state meet in Macon.
There, they will be joined by the boys team, which finished second in the region meet, despite another impressive performance -- as in first-place overall -- from three-time Herald Player of the Year for boys cross country, Taylor Withers. Withers, who is splitting his time between running and swim season, came across the finish line with a time of 18:31 at the region meet, but will be looking to post a time closer to his personal best mark of 17:07 on Saturday. Withers finished fifth at state a year ago.
"I've never seen an athlete quite like him," said first-year boys cross country coach Aly Joslin, the DWS' boys and girls soccer coach who took over for longtime coach Joe Bishop this year. "The kid is just solid across the board and he gets down to business when he's out there. My goal for him is to finish in the Top 10, but I certainly think he's a Top 5 runner."
Fellow first-year girls coach Cathy Jones, who also took over for Bishop, won't disagree with that after watching Withers "dominate all year," though she hopes to have a few Top 10 or Top 5 finishes of her own on the girls side.
Madison Sauls led the Knights to the team region crown a week ago and finished second overall individually with a time of 23:04, followed by Carolina Hawkins (fifth overall, 23:38), Camille Fox (6th, 23:42), Micaela Cuneo (11th, 24:53) and Bonnie Miller (16th, 23:56).
"When I took over for Joe, he told me the night before the region meet that we'd won (region) something like 10 years in a row. So I was like, 'Great, thanks Joe -- no pressure,' " Jones said with a laugh. "But then they went out and really ran hard, and came in as a group. Three in the Top 10 was great, and I think they'll stack up well at state."
The team to beat, both coaches agreed, was Mount de Sales, which has been turning in times this year that are "out of this world," Jones said.
"Someone needs to go study that program because they're doing it right up there," Jones said. "It will be even tougher for the boys to place high, though, I think because the boys field has 300-plus runners, while the girls meet only has 113. Still, everyone's chasing Mount de Sales."
Even for Withers and No. 2 running mate Daniel Talley, who Joslin called the "team leader and captain" for the boys all season. Talley, who helped pace the DWS boys to a second-place team finish overall finish last week at the region meet, ended up 12th with a time of 20:28.
But Joslin and Jones both agree that Talley will be saving his best for state.
"He's Mr. Consistent," Joslin said of Talley. "He's been a fantastic team leader all year, and with he and Taylor being our only two senior (boys), he's really helped the younger runners prepare for state. I think you'll see a strong race from Daniel."
Joining the Knights along with Withers and Talley will be Pete Langstaff, who finished 15th in region with a time of 21:23, followed by Bahamas native Marcus Guntrho (16th overall, 21:24) and Graham Harpole (19th, 22:48).
Joslin said he's expecting a Top 5 or Top 7 finish from his guys as a team at state.
Of course, just making it this far, the coach said, is a major accomplishment in itself.
"Being a soccer coach for the last 10 years of my life, I was a little unsure (taking over as cross country coach) this season," he said. "But thanks to Cathy's help -- and the way these guys ran for me all year -- by the middle to the end of the season, I felt like I had a lot more confidence to lead them by myself. And now here we are (at the state meet)."
Jones feels the same way, adding that she wanted a year to work behind Bishop and learn the ropes before taking over full time. But the fact that she was thrust into the role -- and now has a region team title and is one of the state favorites to show for it -- has her feeling pretty good about the job she's done in her first year.
"I'd worked closely with Joe for the last four or five years and I've run the feeder program at our lower school, but I knew I'd have some big shoes to fill when he told me he wasn't going to be able to come back this year," Jones said. "I won't give myself a grade on how I think I've done, but I will say I'm proud of both teams and (the fact we've kept) up the winning tradition here at Deerfield."
REST OF THE AREA:
Only the Top 4 teams from region advanced to state, and that includes the boys and girls teams Deerfield, Tiftarea, Southland and Westfield.
The Lady Raiders from Americus will be paced by Tanzy Hogsed, who finished fourth at region (23:37), as well as Quinn Hanson (9th, 23:59), Madison Whitaker (10th, 24:51), Rachel Doggett (17th, 25:44) and Laura Ann Slocumb (26th, 32:08).
Westfield's Valarie McClure won the girls meet with a scorching time of 21:54.
As for the Raiders' boys team, they will be paced by Andres Chapparo, who finished sixth individually with a time of 19:46 while leading Southland to a fourth-place team finish. Chapparo's teammates Anthony Dunning finished 11th overall with a time of 20:27, followed by Geoffrey McDonald (14th, 21:04), Ryan Singley (23rd, 22:54) and Alex Arnold (29th, 23:52).
Sherwood, which was missing former region champ Kaite Meagher due to injury, qualified one runner individually on the boys side: William Orr, who finished 10th overall (20:23). The Top 10 individual finishers at region advanced to state.