Recap of boys’ cross country season

The boys’ cross country team’s season began on Aug. 3, 2020 clouded in uncertainty. The runners and coaches had many questions on their minds, ranging from the design of the new home course, to COVID-19 protocols, to the fate of the team after losing four of the top seven runners from the 2019 season. 

The season began with three intrasquad home meets, one of which replaced the annual Kosh Klassic meet that had been canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. Another annual meet for the team, the Wendy’s Invitational in Charlotte, North Carolina, was also canceled for the same reason, much to the dismay of the team.

“I was really disappointed,” said sophomore Sam Maas. “I think it’s a really fun course to run and a fun trip to take with the team.”

The Wendy’s Invitational typically consists of the top 15 to 20 runners on the team taking a bus up to North Carolina on a Friday morning before school. After arriving and running a light practice on the Wendy’s course, the team enjoys a pasta dinner together in Charlotte. The next morning, the team runs the meet before driving home in the evening. The trip is regarded as an important bonding experience for the top runners and is memorable for all who are able to participate. 

This year, however, COVID-19 severely affected the day-to-day functioning of the team. The athletic department mandated masks during every practice, allowing masks to be removed only for meets.

“The masks make it harder to breathe, especially when they get wet or sweaty,” said junior Noah Chen. “Running speed workouts with masks on was incredibly difficult, but it certainly helped us in the races when we were able to take them off.”

The team also had to break up and run in smaller groups to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19. The smaller groups presented an unforeseen challenge to the runners who have always trained in one large group in the past, regardless of speed. The recurring pattern of inclement weather also affected the course conditions, as severe rain and flooding forced the team to find new dry places to run, such as the warning track around the baseball field.

“We had to do several practices where it was really muddy and wet while running on other parts of campus that we have not used in the past. We also weren’t able to go on the track,” said coach Mason Arbery. “That was one of the most annoying parts of the season.”

Additionally, the ongoing construction completely altered the layout of the athletic complex, forcing the team to design a new course after almost 30 years of running on the old home course. The main changes in the new course are the addition of a challenging hill and a portion run on the warning track of the baseball field.

“The course is one of the most difficult in the state,” said coach Mitchell Griest. “It’s got brutal hills, a lot of flat-packed fast stuff, and loose gravel that’s hard to run on which makes it a grueling course.”

Despite all of the obstacles faced in the first few weeks of the season, the team’s first race against other schools came at the AT&T Starr’s Mill meet on Sept. 5, where the top seven runners averaged 16:45, taking second place overall in the meet and setting an optimistic tone for the season.

“As soon as we started racing other teams, people started improving massively and didn’t stop,” said Arbery.

Some other notable moments from the season included the Asics Invitational, where the team bested several of the strongest teams from across the southeast, and the Coach Wood Invitational, where the top seven ran the second-fastest average by a Westminster team in the last fifteen years. However, one of the most memorable moments of the season came during the region meet, when the team swept the top seven spots in the race.

“The team ran as a unit and blended together in a line of white singlets,” said senior captain Matthew Propp. “It was a real confidence builder for the team going into state.”

The recent GHSA reclassification reclassified the teams’ two biggest rivals in AAA: Lovett and Pace, who they narrowly defeated by two points last season to win the state championship. Despite the reclassification of their two biggest rivals, the Cats still faced tough competition in AAA, with Oconee County and Dawson County as the two other top contenders for the state title. 

“Our main competition to focus on is Oconee County,” said Griest. “I think we can beat them, but they’re not going to give it to us for free by any means.”

The state meet took place at Carrollton High School on Nov. 6 with perfect conditions: a cloudy day with a temperature in the 60s and an untouched course, as the AAA boys race was the first of all the championship races to take place this year. The boys received a favorable location for their starting box, located in the center of the starting line due to their first-place finish in the region meet. After the starter’s pistol fired, all 221 runners in the race surged forward, propelled by five months of grueling training intended to prepare them for this race.

The Westminster team ultimately won the race with 54 points, securing their 29th state championship. Dawson County took second with 97 points, and Oconee County placed third with 124 points. Junior Matthew Fernando finished fourth overall, and freshman Joseph Jacquot and junior Noah Chen both finished in the top ten, placing ninth and tenth, respectively. Junior Whitaker Swann finished in 16th, closely followed by juniors Jack Ramsey in 19th and Justice Jacquot in 20th. To round out the Westminster team, freshman Esfan Daya finished 22nd overall. With twelve of their top thirteen runners returning, the boys’ cross country team will look to improve and compete on a national level in the 2021 season.

“The juniors are such a good group of athletes and I’m really excited to see what they can do next year,” said Propp. “We have a tradition on this team of winning, and in the time my grade has been here, we have won every single state championship. I’m confident that the underclassmen can continue that tradition of never settling for second place and always pushing to be the best they can.”