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HERALD ALL-AREA CROSS COUNTRY: Southland's Calhoun, Westwood's Harrell run away with Player of Year awards

Southland freshman Wright Calhoun, left, finished runner-up for the GISA Class AAA state cross country title, while Westwood freshman Perra Harrell capped an amazing year by winning the GISA Class AA state title.

Southland freshman Wright Calhoun, left, finished runner-up for the GISA Class AAA state cross country title, while Westwood freshman Perra Harrell capped an amazing year by winning the GISA Class AA state title.

Freshman Harrell streaks to success at Westwood

CAMILLA — The idea of a ninth-grader winning a state cross country title is a little overwhelming, but for Westwood's Perra Harrell, who literally ran away from the field in the GISA Class AA state meet, it's mind-boggling.

Because Harrell should be in eighth grade.

She skipped third grade and it has never been a problem in the classroom (she has a 4.0 GPA) or in cross country, where she has emerged as a force as a 13-year old.

And she was an easy choice as The Herald's Player of the Year for girls cross country.

“This is my 13th year as the cross country coach, and I've never had a state champion before,” Westover cross country coach Gail Lee said. “I'm glad she's a freshman. We've got her for a while.”

Lee said Harrell's time would have put her with the elite in the big public school state meet.

“We looked up the times in the public school Class AAAA state meet, and she would have finished third. She won the (GISA state title) easily, and her time could have been better if there had been someone to push her,” the coach added. “She could have run the last 1,000 yards backward and still won the race.”

Harrell almost didn't run this fall. She came to Westwood from Grace Academy, where she won the GISA junior varsity state title as an eighth-grader a year ago.

“Oh yes, I knew who she was,” Lee said emphatically when asked if she saw Harrell run as an eighth-grader.

Harrell's parents were worried that Perra had enrolled too late to run, but everything was worked out and the season at Westwood changed the way Perra feels about cross country.

After all, her first steps in long-distance running were anything but easy.

“She ran her first race as a 10-year old in a Fourth of July 5-K community race at Mexico Beach (in Florida),” said Perra's father, Mike, who also ran in the race.

It was a long day for Perra.

“I didn't like (running) much,” Perra said. “To be honest, I threw up three times during the race.”

But she never quit. And that may say as much about her as anything. And, by the way, she still won first place in her age group that day.

She didn't have any problems with her stomach this season, and after the first race of the year, she didn't have many problems with competitors.

“She lost the first race of the year,” Lee said. “I told her after that race that she wasn't going to lose any more, and she didn't.”

Perra only got better.

“I appreciate cross country a lot more now,” she said. “When I was (in sixth and seventh grade) I would finish, like, 15th or something. I really didn't run in eighth grade. I ran only one race all year (the junior varsity state meet).”

But she won that race — and it opened her eyes

Perra and her older sister, Rachel, both start for Westwood's basketball team and basketball has always been Perra's favorite sport. But her success in cross country has changed things.

“I like it a lot more than before,” Perra said. “My legs are a lot longer than when I was younger. My legs were so short in sixth grade. I was about 4’9. Now I'm 5’5. After this year, it makes me want to try a lot harder. My goal this year was to break 20 minutes. And I never did break it. That was disappointing. I really want to break it.''

It's that kind of motivation that may take her a long way.

No one knows what her future will hold, but everyone — from Perra to her dad to her coach — is optimistic.

“She has so much potential, and she doesn't know what her potential is,” Lee said. “She is so humble. I think Perra's heart is in basketball, but running comes so naturally for her. I don't think she is aware of her potential. We're going to go to camps this summer and help her train for next year, and she is going to run on the track team in the spring in the mile and two-mile. She has never run track before.''

There's so much ahead for Perra.

“She is so innocent, and she's such a great kid,” Lee said. “She never complains. I could tell her to run 20 miles, and she would do it. I think she does enjoy cross country more now. I don't think she likes to be in the spotlight, but she's a great runner.”

It's just the beginning ...

AMERICUS — Wright Calhoun was on the beach the day he decided to become a long-distance runner. It had nothing to do with the sand, the sun or the waves.

But he has been leaving the competition in his wake ever since.

Calhoun, a 14-year-old freshman at Southland Academy, is The Herald's Player of the Year in boys cross country after making one of the biggest leaps of any athlete in any sport in Southwest Georgia this past season.

In one year he went from being the second runner on his middle school team to becoming the best high school distance runner in these parts of the state.

“It's almost unheard of,'” said Southland coach Patrick Calcutt, who coached Calhoun on Southland's middle school team and then on this year's varsity team at Southland. “He really worked hard in the offseason, and he came back a different runner.”

Calhoun improved so much that he broke the school record in his first varsity race as a freshman, running an 18:41. His best time in middle school was a 19:50. And that was the beginning. By the end of the year, Calhoun shattered the old school record and ran the fastest time in SW Georgia this year when he covered the 5K race in the GISA Class AAA finals in 16:49.

No one else in The Herald's coverage area, which includes 26 high schools in the GHSA and GISA, was even close to Calhoun. The next runner was Calhoun's teammate and Calcutt's son, Billy, who ran a 17:31. Baconton Charter's Bryton Wenzel won the GHSAA Class A public school state title with a time of 17:34.

“He took off almost two minutes from his first race of the year (18:41) to his last race (16:49),” Calcutt said. “Usually when you break a school record you break it by a few seconds, but he ended up breaking it by more than two minutes.”

If you calculate the entire year-to-year difference, Calhoun dropped more than three minutes off his top time (19:50) in middle school.

What's next?

“I want to run under 16 minutes,” said Calhoun, who never would have become a distance runner if not for his friend Ellis Ivey.

It was Ivey who talked him into joining the cross country team. They were at the beach in Florida when Ivey convinced his pal.

“He just wanted a running buddy,'' Calhoun said. “So I decided to run on the team. When I first starting running, I really didn't want to do it, but now I love it. I just love it. Whenever I started, everyone said it was going to hurt. Now I love it when I make other people hurt (when I pass my opponents).”

Calcutt said Calhoun's tenacity is part of the success story.

“He won't back down to anyone,” Calcutt said. “He's a little guy, but he doesn't back down from runners who are bigger and older than he is. He goes after them.”

Part of his success story comes from an accidental meeting with Darton cross county coach Bruce Skiles during the annual Jingle Bell Jog.

“I met him and he changed my footwork and gave me a new way to work out,” Calhoun said. “I kept doing the workout and got faster and faster."

Herald All-Area Boys Cross Country Team

Billy Calcutt, Southland, 8th grade

Why he’s here: Runner up for POY, Finished sixth in the GISA Class AAA state meet with a time of 17:31.49.

Chase Harris, Bainbridge, So.

Why he’s here: Finished 13th at the GHSA Class AAAAA state meet in a time of 17:23.36.

Bryton Wenzel, Baconton Charter, Sr.

Why he’s here: Finished a remarkable career at Baconton by winning the GHSAA Class A public school state title in a time of 17:34.66.

Dale Pate, Worth County, Jr.

Why he’s here: Won the region title for the past two years and was the No. 1 runner in Region 1-AAAA this season. He didn’t post a time in the state meet because of an injury.

Marcus Gouthro, Deerfield, Jr.

Why he’s here: Was one of the top runners in GISA Class AAA this season, but an injury sidelined him in the postseason.

Brian Miller, Southland, Fr.

Why he’s here: Finished 33rd in the GISA Class AAA state meet with a time of 18:43 to help Southland to a third-place finish overall.

Geoffrey McDonald, Southland, So.

Why he’s here: Finished 35th in the GISA Class AAA state meet in a time of 18:45.08 to help Southland take third place in the team competition.

Javonte Ross, Bainbridge, Sr.

Why he’s here: Finished 65th in the GHSAA Class AAAAA state meet in a time of 18:35.15.

Clay Sheffield, Westover, So.

Why he’s here: Ran a 18:23 to finish 47th in the GHSA Class AAAA state meet.

Herald All-Area Girls Cross Country Team

Ericka Taylor, Westover, Sr.

Why she’s here: Former Herald POY and now runner-up in 2012, she finished a remarkable career as the top runner in Westover history after winning the state title as a sophomore and — after battling injuries as a junior — finished in seventh place in this season’s GHSA Class AAAA state meet in a time of 20:18.92.

Chris Shattles, Southland, Fr.

Why she’s here: Finished 16th in the GISA Class AAA state meet with a time of 21:44.53. She set a school record (19:51), won the region title and was unbeaten all year until a stress fracture of her tibia hampered her in the state title race.

Mary Catherine Calcutt, Southland, Jr.

Why she’s here: Finished 26th in the GISA Class AAA state meet with a time of 22:48.42.

Chiarra Palazzolo, Westover, So.

Why she’s here: Ran a 23:10.38 in the GHSA Class AAAA state meet.

Caitlin Cainion, Westover, So.

Why she’s here: Ran a 23:12.50 in the GHSAA Class AAAA state meet.

Rodreaka Chambliss, Crisp Co., Jr.

Why she’s here: Finished 41st in the GHSA Class AAAA state meet in a time of 22:26.49.

Claire Collins, Westwood, So.

Why she’s here: Finished 15th in the GISA Class AA state meet in a time of 23:09.

Mattie Vielands, Deerfield, Fr.

Why she’s here: Finished 37th in the GISA Class AAA state meet in a time of 23:22.95.

Helena Argenstein, Deerfield, Fr.

Why she’s here: Finished 40th in the GISA Class AAA state meet in a time of 23:40.

Paige Braswell, Bainbridge, Jr.

Why she’s here: Ran a 23:35.20 at the GHSAA Class AAAAA state meet.