What a crazy year it's been in 7A this year. After watching the complete carnage last year which featured 5 points separating 3rd from 6th place and 83 points separating 3rd from 14th place, one would think that there's no way it could get crazier than that. "Holy 7A Insanity, Batman!" This year looks to be even tighter. Three programs have separated slightly from the rest but have also looked vulnerable to attack all season. An off-day for any top 12 program could be catastrophic. With that said, let's get into the team previews. For simplicity's sake, we'll just go off the most recent 7A rankings.
Fresh off a 3rd place finish last year which features several returners, South Forsyth has gone undefeated versus 7A squads when at full strength and only holds one loss overall this season while depleted to West Forsyth at Double Dip. They have 7 runners who have run 16:40 or faster including consistent #1 and top 10 at State threat Michael Patterson. It's their depth which may help them prevail for the title this year. With no super heavy favorites coming in, a race like this could come down to who has the best 5th man / who has the team with the fewest "flops". South Forsyth isn't "flop proof", but they may be the most likely team to fit that scenario. Strong runners like Brennan Bower and Sean Catania can really help SF win the championship if they're a formidable 2-3. They've been #1 all season. Can they maintain it?
It's been a bit of an up and down year for West Forsyth this season. They'll appear to be a championship contender one week and then appear to falter another; nevertheless, you can't count the Wolverines out of the championship hunt. When they're on, they're just as dangerous as any team in this field. They ended their regular season with two 2nd place finishes - one to aforementioned South Forsyth and another to the heralded Pope Greyhounds at the "Pickens No Worries, He's a'Grinnin'" Invitational. They also showed they can run a difficult course well as they won Double Dip earlier this year. West isn't the most top-heavy team in the field, but they do have depth as well as solid leadership in Jeremy Ericson and Reece Cato. They'll look to follow up on their season's success with a big race on the big stage.
Following their first true down year since seemingly World War I, Brookwood returns to where they believe they belong: In the hunt for a championship. Led by the best 1-2 punch in 7A (Will Bray and Luke McNeil), Brookwood has had a successful season including victories at Carrollton, County, Darlington, and Area. South Forsyth remains the only 7A team of late to defeat the Broncos - a somewhat comfortable 204-279 gap at Coach Wood. Even so, Coach Dehnke is a "big game" coach who wants his athletes back on the podium. Look for their top 2 runners along with emerging senior Patrick Smith and their supporting cast to try and take down SF to secure yet another State championship to add to this storied program's Bellagio-sized vault.
What a weird season the Norcross Blue Devils have had. They slapped Gwinnett County (sans Brookwood) around at the County and Area Championships but then finished near the back at Wingfoot and only raced the Schlicht brothers at Coach Wood. It should be mentioned that the Blue Devils gained a soccer star on their squad in senior Mohammed Mursal late in the season who won the Asics JV race and then was their #1 runner at Area. This newly found diamond in the rough could prove to be a key for Norcross in competing in new territory. They've also shown to have depth as they had 6 in the top 17 at Area. Can Norcross prove that they're not just Kings of the Horse Park and translate it to a difficult Carrollton course?
Well, it's definitely difficult to follow up on last year's thorough domination of all Georgia competition. While all good things must come to an end, but Milton has still shown to be a podium contender this year. Among the tough competition at Wingfoot, Milton downed all but South Forsyth and Hillgrove and have tough course experience as they host a home meet that has crushed more souls than White Zombie. Milton knows that last year was special, but that doesn't mean the likes of sophomore sensation Hayden Marshall or seasoned senior Luke Bonneville won't try to keep Milton in contention. The win may be a little out of reach, but in a year like this - anyone can take it. Why not Milton for a repeat?
The Longhorns feature a roster with zero seniors. Typically, that means zero chance of winning State as experience tends to give teams an edge; however, Coach Tigue's men have shown to be pretty dangerous this year at times, namely at Coach Wood where they secured a top 10 finish and pulled to within 50 of Brookwood - a very easy gap to make up considering the loaded Coach Wood field. Lambert is coming off a 2nd place finish at State which is essentially a victory when compared to Milton's team last year and a legitimate State Championship the year before. This team performs well when it matters, and the Longhorns overall lack of experience could prove to be a benefit; they may just not know any better. They'll be led by the sophomore duo of Cooper Bocko and Adam Nicholson who both do have State experience. Watch out for these guys as they could be really sneaky on Saturday.'
Hillgrove came into the 2018 season as one of the favorites following an impressive track season which featured two returners qualifying for State in the 3200m. They've had a strong season thus far but have appeared to lose a little bit of ground to some of these other squads listed. They didn't run particularly well at Coach Wood and appeared vulnerable at Area. Even so, this team still dominated the Cobb County Championships and secured a top 10 finish at Wingfoot earlier this year and only lost to South Forsyth in terms of 7A competition. Led by junior Noah Hayes and senior Chase Korzenok, Hillgrove is upper classmen heavy this year and should feature up to 5 seniors in their State lineup. These seniors have probably been thinking State Championship or at least Podium all year. Keep an eye on these guys as they should absolutely stick their noses in the competition.
Injuries have been tough on these guys this season. They've had some strong performances - a top 3 finish at Cobb County and perhaps most importantly, a 5th place finish at Area. While 5th doesn't sound super impressive, they were only 10 points behind Milton and Lambert which shows that Walton could be on the upward swing in the most critical time. In a wide open year with plenty of questions to be answered, can the Raiders pull off something special when it counts? Look for Connor Old to be a top 10 threat to lead the charge.
Mill Creek is another team looking to bounce back from their first truly disappointing State appearance last year. Coach Christie's crew has been up and down this year, but perhaps they're also hitting their stride when it matters most. A strong 3rd place finish at Area along with a top 10 threat in Brian Pelland could help lead Mill Creek to a special finish on Saturday. They're well coached and do have plenty of State experience in Pelland, Paul Pollock, and Joseph Muck. These 3 along with some young talent will look to pull off a strong finish in Carrollton where, as it's been said ad nauseum, it's wide open.
Similar to Mill Creek, Parkview will be looking to rebound from a disappointing State finish in 2017. Led by junior Tristan Autry, Parkview has been a bit up and down this season. What could benefit the Panthers on Saturday is their previous success at Carrollton Orthopedic this season as they gave Brookwood a good run to finish 2nd overall and defeat aforementioned Milton. Even so, Parkview will need some help at the top. They've got depth through their 7th man, but they've not yet proven to be able to do enough damage up front. They'll need to fix that problem at State if they want to have any chances of a podium finish.
The Area 1 Champions are led by surefire top 10 threat Chris Cherono. Grayson has a strong top 3 but definitely have some depth issues to overcome in a crowded field like State. They're well coached by Mac Bradbury and have shown to run well at State historically when compared to their regular season, so in a year where anything can happen, can the Rams stick their horns in unchartered territory?
Lakeside's squad has been fairly consistent this year but didn't appear to have their 'A' game at Area 4, losing to Mill Creek and Parkview whom they disposed of at Coach Wood just a week prior. They're led by another top 10 threat in Mikias Mekonen but will need some help at the top if they're going to contend. It should be mentioned that the Vikings have 5 returners from last year's 4th place finishing squad, so it'd be stupid for anyone to count these guys out. Sometimes it all comes together when it really matters; don't sleep on this team.
Other teams to consider:
Newnan, Marietta, and East Coweta who took 2nd through 4th in Area 2, running up pretty close to Hillgrove 10 days out from State. Newnan is a bit of a "new kid on the block" and went relatively unnoticed early on in the season but have been consistently competitive and could do some damage to more storied programs. Marietta has one of the best coaches in Georgia in Jack Coleman, so that alone makes them dangerous. East Coweta has the individual favorite in Kyle Harkabus but will need more help from the supporting cast to really make much noise in the team competition.
7A Boys Individually:
On the surface, it seems to be a 3 man race with 1 being the favorite and 2 chasing him down. Even so, I'll feature a nice variety of athletes who can contend for top 10 in addition to those who can contend for "The Dub".
Kyle Harkabus (photo by Daniel McCauley)
The Foot Locker Finalist from a year ago is back at it again and has downed every single runner he's competed against this year except for 6A stud Jack Filan; otherwise, Harkabus has been unstoppable. He's got impressive victories at AT&T and, perhaps most importantly, ATC Wingfoot. He's shown to be the class of the field this season, and it'll take somebody having the race of their lives for this guy to be denied. Expect him to take it early and just straight up dare any challengers to come with him.
Gizelbach will be barking solo at State, but the bulldog from Forsyth Central has had a really good XC season following a (relatively speaking) disappointing track season. Gizelbach hasn't gone slower than 15:54 this year, and that 15:54 was at Wingfoot which was significantly slower this year than last year. He pulled to within 8 seconds of Harkabus and 9 seconds of Filan, the only man to down Harkabus this year, at Coach Wood. Gizelbach has shown to run well on the big stage, and coming off a dominating win at Area 3, could he pull off something special in Carrollton?
Good grief! This kid hasn't graduated yet? The 9:22 freshman came on to the scene was seems like ions ago, but following a few years where the dreaded "plateau" bug appeared to invade Condra, the Lion from Peachtree Ridge has put together a truly strong senior campaign. He has 5 victories to his name this season, perhaps most impressively his dominating win at Berry a couple months back. He also secured top 5 finishes at Wingfoot and Coach Wood which shows he's knocking on the front door of the two men listed above. He's got two top 5 finishes to his name in Carrollton, so he knows full well how to run the course and run it competitively. Watch out for Condra as he looks to stamp his name in history as one of Georgia's best of all time.
Archer's Myles Collins has had himself a pretty solid season following a strong sophomore campaign which saw him snag 10th place at State in XC. Collins ran a strong 15:28 at Asics to take 4th overall and also placed 4th at Berry. He's had a pretty intense rivalry with Grayson's Chris Cherono this season which has featured them take shots back and forth at each other. Collins is a special talent who will look to improve upon last year's State performance.
Chris Cherono has been rapidly improving dating back to last track season. A relative unknown during last year's XC season, Cherono exploded onto the scene in the Spring and has continued that momentum into this cross country season. He was victorious over Collins at Area and has top 3 finishes at Berry and Gwinnett County to his name. While he likely won't be gunning for the win, Cherono is an obvious favorite for a top 10 finish which will bode well for the junior's XC season next year.
Kamari Miller (photo by Daniel McCauley)
The sophomore from Marietta has come on strong the second half of this season as he's been under 16:00 three consecutive times including a strong 8th place finish at Coach Wood in 15:37. He could be catching fire at just the right time, and as a sophomore, could be still racing himself into shape. He was within 20 seconds of Harkabus at Area which, while not the best measure, shows that Miller can certainly make himself a legitimate threat for a top 10 finish.
Lakeside's low stick Mekonen has been in the top 15 in every race he's run this season including a competitive 14th place finish at Coach Wood and an 8th place finish at Wendy's. He took 25th at State last year which was fairly senior heavy, so it's reasonable to assume that an improved runner like Mekonen can get inside the top 10. He got dropped by Condra pretty handily at Area, but it's likely he was settling in for 2nd place and waiting to really slug it out at State.
Will Bray and Luke McNeil
The Bronco duo of Will Bray and Luke McNeil have been critical in Brookwood's success. Will Bray came out of nowhere following what must have been a strong summer while McNeil has been showing signs of "stud" following a sub 9:30 3200m this past Spring. Bray has been the more consistent runner than McNeil this season, but both runners were able to sneak under 16:00 at Coach Wood. With both runners set to return next season, this race could be a great spot to gain valuable experience while trying to sneak in to the top 10.
Noah Hayes (photo by Daniel McCauley)
Hillgrove ace Hayes has consistently been among the 7A best this season following a top 50 finish at the super competitive Race of Champions at Great American and a 20th place finish at Coach Wood. He took 16th overall at Wingfoot as well which shows that, while a top 5 finish is probably out of reach, Hayes could find himself in a chase pack late in the race where it'll come down to who has the most guts to get it done.
Lambert's super sophomore Cooper Bocko showed to be among the best freshmen in Georgia last season and has continued that trajectory into this XC season. He's got three top 10 finishes this year including a 7th place finish at Berry early in the season. He also took 4th place in easily the most competitive Area meet in 7A.
The North Forsyth stud hasn't finished outside 6th place at any point this season. While his competition level hasn't been super stacked the whole season, he did win the opening Lambert River Run and took 3rd in Area 3 (defeating the aforementioned Cooper Bocko). Caleb is one of many who will be contending for top 10.
Patterson leads the team favorite South Forsyth War Eagles. He's got a pretty impressive resume this season which includes a 15th place finish at Coach Wood, a 13th place finish at Wingfoot, and a 10th place finish at Jesse Owens. The Road to the Championship for South Forsyth begins with Patterson who will look to get SF on the board early by getting into the top 10.
Other athletes to consider:
The Milton trio of Luke Bonneville, Gary Halverson, and Hayden Marshall, Mill Creek's Brian Pelland, Walton's Connor Old, Parkview's Tristan Autry, Wheeler's Alex Dyck, West Forsyth's Jeremy Ericson, Cherokee's Mykal Hogue, and Roswell's Jack Rhodes.