WAXHAW – The Cuthbertson girls cross country team has been runner-up to Chapel Hill each of the past two seasons, so coach Kirk Walsh knew the drill when his girls got ready to start the year.
But this year, with the loss of one of the Cuthbertson all-time great runners in Sarah LaTour, people from the outside at least probably doubted what the young, but talented Cavs could do without her front-pack running and leadership.
“From the outside, you would think losing Sarah would have been a punch in the gut,” Walsh said. “But honestly, she did a great job leading the girls in the past, which helps others step in to fill the void. The constant pipeline in our program from sixth- through 12th-grade helps us develop talent and training principles and in turn, allows us to rebuild from the loss of a superstar like Sarah.”
So this year, even with some injuries and a couple of low notes, the Cavs trained hard, saw their results pay off and stayed the course.
Sometimes that’s easier said than done.
Take the conference meet for example, where Madeline Hill (18:26) and Leah Helms (18:46) had finished first and second, respectively, but Weddington put the next six runners across the finish line to win.
“In our May team meeting and throughout the season, we talked about playing the long game and staying focused on the championship season,” Walsh said. “That meant staying patient through the September grind and racing on tired legs as we trained through. It was hard seeing other teams across the state pressing out with big early season performances, and definitely tested our patience. But the kids kept the faith and leaned on each other throughout.”
Hill was again the regional champion and the Cavs came back to take their team title heading into the state meet.
Hill was the favorite to win the individual title with Helms being right there. Walsh said the two are friends off the course, but push each other to be their best.
“Madeline and Leah are very even-keeled emotionally, and they have the huge advantage of being able to work together every day and in big races,” he said. “They’ve literally competed together as teammates and friends for the past five years. There is zero animosity between them, only love and respect…They are also both very humble by nature, which fits perfectly with our team dynamic.”
Hill took the lead early and cruised to the win with a run of 18:11.
“Madeline has been involved in big races through the middle school program and in Junior Olympics since sixth grade, which helped shorten the transition to the championship stage in high school…So when this year rolled around, I think she knew what to expect. The kid has ice in her veins.”
Helms (18:19, third), Kaitlyn St. Hilaire (19:17, 14th), Gabriella Castro (19:28, 19th) and Delaney Patterson (19:38, 23rd) rounded out the scoring, and when the dust settled, the Cavs had won by 21 points over Chapel Hill and their first cross country title.
“Our whole community is enormously proud of our kids, and the future is very bright,” Walsh said. “Both our guys and gals teams are very young, and we have another talented group of eighth-graders rising to the program next year.”