Natchez’s cross country teams ready to run
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 17, 2003
Saints look to defend; Cathedral’s new faces
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NATCHEZ &045; Natchez High track coach Larry Wesley believes the success of the Bulldog track program crosses over into the achievements of the two cross country squads Natchez fields.
But, like in any sport, the room for improvement gets wider ever year. Both Bulldog squads will get their first challenge of the young year in Hattiesburg at the 24th annual Southern Mississippi Cross Country Invitational today, where teams from Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama will compete.
&uot;If 100 boys, or 100 girls are running this week, if mine can get in the top 50, then I’ll know we’re on our way,&uot; Wesley said of today’s litmus test. &uot;This particular meet will feature teams from all over the Southeast.&uot;
The last two years, the girls team has been led by senior Taneika Hill and junior Taji Dorsey, both accomplished stars during the Lady Bulldogs state championship track season of 2003.
Wesley anticipates junior Whitney Thomas to shoulder some of the load as well, as the Natchez girls look to defend their two-time district title. LaColony Oliver, who made the state finals of last year’s 800-meter and 1-mile run as an eighth grader, figures into equation additionally.
The girls, whose best finish under Wesley came two years ago with a seventh-place result, ended up out of the top 10 last year when key injuries to Dorsey and Thomas handcuffed the Bulldog roster.
&uot;With the girls we have a lot of experience. They’ll give the girls that are behind them the chance to see how a race is supposed to be run,&uot; Wesley said. &uot;The leadership they provide, hopefully that will rub off on some of the younger ones. Maybe they’ll come back next year and someone will step in their shoes.&uot;
The Natchez boys, on the other hand, are in a rebuilding stage of sorts, after losing two of its top runners to graduation.
Both Karlesio Richardson and Darius Edwards earned scholarships to Alcorn State and Morehouse College in Atlanta, respectively.
Senior Byron Augustine, who transferred in from New Orleans last year, and junior Travis Graves, who sat out last season with an injury, are Wesley’s go-to runners.
&uot;He’s a very aggressive runner,&uot; he said of Graves. &uot;Every time we practice he’s always way out in front of everybody else. He’s never walking. I’m looking for big things from him.&uot;
Montrell Shelton is an up-and-coming sophomore, and should provide depth for the Bulldogs.
Wesley has been fortunate to always have the cupboard packed full of talent with an even distribution of runners spread over four grades.
He said he’ll no right off the bat how this soon will play out from an individual and team standpoint with today’s race.
&uot;I’ll know if they can’t finish in the top 50 at this meet, they won’t be able to when we start running exclusively against the Mississippi crowd,&uot; Wesley said. &uot;The teams from the Gulf Coast, especially, have some pretty good programs.&uot;
Cross country takes a certain type of personality, Wesley said, that loves to run and can handle the monotonous of the sport.
&uot;I look for that never quit sign. Some people who run cross country have a tendency to want to walk after a mile or two,&uot; he said. &uot;I want to see that dedication in practice until we start competing.&uot;
With a 2002 Mississippi Private School Association Class A state championship in the bag, a repeat performance might be a little more challenging for the Saint boys this season.
Despite three returning runners, sophomore Nason Stephens and freshman Austin Green were named All-Staters last season, the boys have the minimum to field a team.
&uot;The problem is you have to have five to compete and right now we have just have the right number,&uot; head coach Andrew Ketchings said. &uot;We’re liable to pick up a couple when junior high football season ends, but we’ve got our work cut out for us to repeat.&uot;
He added that last year’s team was motivated as a result of a third place finish in 2001.
&uot;Two years ago we came so close, and we were within three points of first, which is not a lot in cross country,&uot; Ketchings said. &uot;To come that close and not get it had everyone inspired last season. Of the five top runners last year we had three of them.&uot;
The Trinity girls, who in its inaugural year finished fourth overall at the state meet, returning three as well, with sophomores Mallory Archer and Grafton Pritchartt and seventh grader Caroline Ketchings, earning All-State honors last season.
Throw in seventh grader Melanie Hurt and a pair of sixth graders in Jheri Ogden and Caroline Mullins, and the Saints seem to have the depth to give Class A defending champ Huntington a run for its money.
&uot;They are (motivated), but they were so surprised to get fourth,&uot; Ketchings said. &uot;We had one runner two years ago, and then, last year all of a sudden they finished fourth, just a few points out of third.&uot;
The girls competed at a Jackson Academy meet earlier this month where they were the only Class A team represented in the event, finished fifth out of eight teams.
Ketchings has already been impressed with the talent in the youth o his girls’ squad.
&uot;They’ve come out and run very well,&uot; Ketchings said. &uot;At that age you try to get them use to the distance and building up their strength. I’ve been pleased with their progress. The young girls give us depth we didn’t have last year.&uot;
They may be new faces to coaching, but Jennifer Mire and Lena Yarbrough are far from novices to running.
As instructors at Mainstream Fitness and self-proclaimed health nuts, Mire and Yarbrough were approached by Green Wave Athletic Director Roy Garcia about heading up the school’s two teams.
Plus, since both are training for a marathon in several months, this prevents them from straying.
&uot;Lena and I have talked about starting fresh, and building the team up in ours and the kids’ minds,&uot; Mire said. &uot;We’ve got 22 signed up now and hopefully we’ll get more kids next year.&uot;
Despite the teams being a bit lopsided, 17 boys compared to five girls, Mire said each kid’s energy and excitement motivates she and Yarbrough even more.
Still, there are some situations that were foreign to both, such as not knowing that a cross country race was 3.1 miles or five kilometers, and that up until this year boys and girls ran separate lengths.
They now run equally distances.
&uot;Probably the biggest thing that I’ve learned is that a lot of time kids at this age aren’t that disciplined when it comes to running,&uot; Yarbrough said. &uot;It’s a new thing for me to teach them how to pace themselves for an entire race so they can finish as strong as they started.&uot;
Mire sees the sport as a year-round benefactor since it helps train the runners for other sports and activities they are associated with.
&uot;Jennifer and I being as competitive as we are, I feel like that is something that we’re passing on to them. It’s not about winning, but improving,&uot; Yarbrough said. &uot;It’s incredible, they’ve already gotten better by leaps and bounds. They’re listening to what we have to say about their eating and drinking habits, and they seem to be understanding what exercises to do and what shoes are best to run in.&uot;