2020 Coach Wood Invitational: Miller and Hutchins Triumphant

(all photos by Marc Logan)

What a two-day affair the Coach Wood Invitational was! This was the first time in its history that it was spread across two days (due to COVID-19), and honestly, I kind of liked it! I'm sure Coach Christie, Coach Sexton, and co. are still catching up on sleep and family time, but this gave more teams the opportunity to showcase their talents on the big stage. We had some prime matchups that Coach McClay outlined in his preview. My goal is to recap each of the races he previewed and add some comments from coaches and athletes who coached and competed throughout the weekend.

Varsity Boys Race C

Kamari Miller leads Sully Shelton, Justin Watchel, and Zack Truitt

The 8:00 am Championship Boys division race was met with the sun beginning to peek over the trees and 45 degrees. 16 of the best teams in Georgia and Alabama embarked on McIntosh Nature Reserve, and the treat they gave us was a dominant individual victory in Kamari Miller of Marietta who continues to rack up sub-15:00 performances, 42 total performances under 16, and every single team averaged 16:30 or better including 4 averaging under 16:00.

Kamari Miller yawps in jubilation at the finish line.

Individually, it was Miller Time, winning the race by 15 seconds in 14:51. Kamari had lots to say about his victory and his level of competition, so to not slight him (plus, he adds some commentary about the race itself!), here's the entirety of what he had to say: "I did not come into the race with a specific strategy other than race hard and see how the race developed over mile one and to make sure I stayed in a position to be responsive to any surges.  The race went out a little slower than expected (editor's note: I admittedly laughed at the thought of sub-4:40 being slow) as we hit the first mile at about 4:38 which seemed off for the course reputation of being fast.  I knew it wasn't a problem though because of how deep this field was.  I knew we could all help each other hit a fast time. At about 1.5 miles in the race I noticed some separation developing in the lead pack.  From that point, I started pushing to try and hit my marks at each mile and try and get a fast time. The footing on the course was quite unfortunate as it was a little soggy and mushy and I believe it is reflected in the runners' times.  Overall I am happy to be able to get a big win and compete against some of the best guys in the southeast. I am also happy to come away with the course record here at Coach Wood especially with the history of the meet.  It has had a lot of elite runners, and it is an honor to have my name as part of the list of past winners moving forward." Great insight from an awesome Georgia runner who is having a season for the ages.

Huntsville's Will Pinson and Gabe Scales left nothing out on the course.

From a team perspective, it was the Alabama show again as the top 2 teams came over the border. Huntsville's victory was secured thanks to all scorers finishing in the top 50. Coach Blake Borden commented that this race ended up being a learning experience for his kids, commenting that his guys "came into this week a bit too fixated on things outside of our control, such as the competition and what kind of fast times they thought some of the top guys from GA were going to run. As a result, I wasn't really thrilled with the headspace we were in for some of the week leading up. However, at this point with our guys I tend to let this type of thing run its course and instead reflect on the lessons to be learned after the race, good results or bad." When asked to give the rundown of the race itself, Coach Borden said they "got out very well. Too well in fact for a few with hindsight. But, going out fast was the plan so they followed through. Seniors Jackson Danner and Gabe Scales, along with junior Will Pinson were in the lead pack out of the gate, all roughly in the top 8 or so. Senior Jackson Nguyen and junior Matthew Cobb, who are sub 16 guys this year in their own right, weren't far behind them. Combining the blazing start with the first truly cold weather race we have been in this year, the 2k to roughly 4k stretch was a struggle for a few. I was pleased with how a few of the guys closed the last 1k though & we did what we needed to in terms of winning the race." Adding to the teaching experience Coach Wood provided, he said the "middle was definitely a humbling experience that will provide some teaching points the next few weeks. Our 1-5 average was 15:42 on what is billed as a faster course than most with a 49 second 1-5 split, while our average at Jesse Owens two weeks earlier was 15:41 with a 42 second 1-5 split." In closing, Coach Borden had this to say about the competition itself: "Our Alabama neighbor Scottsboro's boys ran very well, and the front running GA guys were impressive." While they lose some to graduation, Huntsville has a stud 8th grader Erik Moore waiting in the wings who, he commented, would be their current #10. Perhaps some Georgia teams will return the favor next year as Huntsville hosts their annual "Southern Showcase". There is also a local running company in Huntsville hosting what Coach Borden describes as a "Foot Lockeresque" meet on Saturday, 11/21.

Rounding out top Georgians:

Justin Wachtel was overall runner-up at 15:06

Zack Truitt of Landmark Christian 5th/15:12 and Sully Shelton of Harrison 6th/15:13

Andrew Jones of North Hall finished 7th at 15:14.

Varsity Girls Race C 

Jenna Hutchins of Science Hill gave no quarter, slaying the field at 16:39.

When Nationally-known Jenna Hutchins of Science Hill (TN) wants to come to Georgia twice in one season, you know you're doing something right as a state for kids in this sport. Coming in as the heavy favorite, Hutchins threw down her 4th consecutive sub 17:00 (this time, 16:39) performance which makes her only the second female ever to accomplish such a feat. The only other runner? Katelyn Tuohy. Despite winning the race by over a minute over some true studs in the field, this race had 73 total girls break 20:00 and 25 break 19:00.

Jenna Hutchins

Despite her dominant performance, Hutchins was humble in victory. "The Coach Wood Invitational was a very fun experience! I have not raced much in Georgia, so this year has been exciting. The park we ran at was absolutely beautiful, and the course was in excellent condition. I greatly appreciate Coach Christie for hosting the meet in such uncertain circumstances with COVID-19 and allowing me to race. I was honored to get to compete with some of the premier athletes in Georgia and am extremely thankful for the opportunity to have attended." When I put on my reporter hat and asked her coach to see if she'd comment about being compared to the likes of the legendary Katelyn Tuohy, she had this to say, "It is definitely nice to be named alongside an athlete as well noted as Katelyn Tuohy, but I try not to compare myself much to others. I mostly focus on being the best that I can be as an individual, improving myself throughout each season, and most importantly, having fun and loving being able to run and compete in general." She's only a junior, so perhaps we'll see her "cross the border" in her final season, too.

Mary Brady led the St. Pius X squad to the Championship race team title.

Top Georgia athlete and second overall finisher, senior Mary Brady, stamped another sub 18:00 performance to her résumé. Brady said that, despite catching a cramp in the last mile, she was happy to hang on and take 2nd in the race. She also commented that "Coach Wood is my favorite course for sure even if it was softer ground than last year. During the race, I was cold and feeling great (until the cramp) and am proud of myself for roughing it out." When asked if she was worried about securing 2nd place, she said she was "definitely worried with 400 to go, but I trusted my kick. I told myself the pain wouldn't be worth it if I didn't give it my all." Her performance also helped spike the winning ways of the St. Pius X ladies in a minor upset, toppling their Catholic counterparts Marist (2nd) and Blessed Trinity (3rd). In all, every single ladies' team averaged sub-20:00 showing how deep this field truly was. When asked to comment about his team's performance, Coach McClay said, "This was definitely our best race of the year but mostly because we were finally at full strength. The girls followed the race strategy perfectly and all finished about where I expected though I thought times would be faster all around. I guess I kind of messed up there by telling them it was going to be faster, so they were all a little disappointed in the end. But, I'm really happy with the way they competed and very happy with the end result." Following the Catholic Trinity was new 7A favorite Marietta. He said his girls "as a group put together their most complete race of the season. It was nice to be in a big race atmosphere. With 3 weeks to go until State, we hope to keep building off the momentum from this race."

Rounding out the Top 5 Girls:

Katherine Law achieved her 5k PR going 17:55.07

Carmel Yonas of South Forsyth PRd as well at 17:55.73

Hannah Schemmel joined the Coach Wood PR club as well in 18:04.

Varsity Boys Race A

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The opening race kicked off with an individual victory from pre-race favorite Carl Spivey of Bremen who dropped the first of seemingly countless sub-17:00 performances. His commanding 35-second victory was among the more dominant performances of the weekend and paced his team to a 3rd overall finish. From a team perspective, it was Greater Atlanta Christian's day as they were helped by 4 finishers in the top 9 positions led by 3rd place finisher Noah Warner. "I was really proud of our team," Coach Chase Parks said. "They've been working really hard this season, so to see that pay off with several season-best times this weekend was great." He added that they were "eager to compete" due to a long layoff and that they determined their race strategy which was to "be near the front of the pack from the beginning" and were "able to hold position well." The Spartans averaged 18:02 in the winning effort.

Varsity Girls Race A

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In the Ladies' Varsity A race, it was a route for Lakeside-Dekalb. The Lady Vikings swept the top 3 positions and were led by individual champion and freshman Maggie Welp who ran 20:03. Their team average of 20:32 was over one minute north of any other team, something which Coach Drew Spires said was a bit disappointing from a competition perspective. "DeKalb County Schools didn't begin racing until October 3rd, so we've only raced 3 times. This year is crazy for everyone. We love Coach Wood and hate that we missed Early Bird" which, along with missing other early season races, believes could have given them a more competitive race. When asked to comment on Maggie Welp's performance, he said "She had a blast. We love the course at McIntosh Nature Reserve so much, and everyone there is so nice. Such a beautiful little space. Maggie was a little disappointed she wasn't in a more competitive race. The girl doesn't quit and if she had been in a more competitive race, she could have trimmed 30 seconds off her time. We haven't seen what she can do yet." 

Varsity Boys Race B

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Next up on the guys' side was the B division which was won by Veterans with a team average of 17:06. They were paced by individual champion Trent Jackson who, with his winning time of 16:21, bested his previous career fastest time by 20 seconds. Coaches David Shepherd and Mitch Horton were thrilled with their guys' performances. "We always look forward to 'The Wood'," said Coach Shepherd. "We always look forward to Coach Wood because we get to compete against the Atlanta-area schools and we get to see how we stack up." He also said his team "loves the flatter course and the cooler weather" this meet brings and is excited because he believes this meet "primes us for the rest of the season." When commenting on what the rest of the season looks like, Coach Shepherd said their school's best historical finish is 8th at State and is looking forward to contending for the podium which would be the first in school history. When speaking of individual performances, he noted that Trent Jackson had the opportunity to get on some college coaches' radars and he was especially impressed with brothers Mohammad Ibrahim (5th in the varsity race) and his younger freshman brother Ahmed who won the JV race.

Varsity Girls Race B

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McClay's pre-race favorite came through Friday evening as Westminster dominated the B race. They were led by junior Cate Stevens who ran her second sub-20:00 of the season in 19:38 to defeat adversary Addison Myers of Cherokee Bluff by 11 seconds. Coach Amy Eubanks stated that Westminster was able to secure the victory despite still being down last year's State Champion in Mira Srinivasa. She added that she felt her girls ran "fairly well" which hopefully is a good sign heading into Region and State. This ended the varsity competition for Friday night. 

Varsity Boys Race D

Sebasthian Gonzalez of Archer leads Will Bray of Brookwood with Jonathan Greene of Evans lurking.

When the dust settled from the championship races, there were two more super competitive races on tap. The Varsity Boys D Race was led by Gwinnett powers Brookwood and Archer with Brookwood gaining the upper hand, averaging 16:27 and putting all 5 scorers in the top 24. Coach Ben Dehnke was impressed with his guys' performance, commenting "Our compression from 1-5 was decent, and our young guys performed really well." Eyeing a duel with Parkview for the region championship on Saturday, Dehnke said he's hoping for big things from both those young guns and his seniors. Individually, it was Seb Rodriguez of Archer, dropping a 15:42 to narrowly defeat Jonathan Greene of Evans and Will Bray of Brookwood. Coach John McCartney commented that Seb was "disappointed in his Gwinnett County Championship performance and had a plan to push the second lap of Coach Wood. I am happy with his decision to race with his teammates instead of the Championship race." When commenting on his team's performance and goals, he added: "We enjoyed racing Brookwood, and we realize as a team we must continue to strive to get better every day to be able to compete with the best at State."

Varsity Girls Race D

Allie Wardle of Brookwood won the Varsity Girls D race

One can see that this was a pretty competitive race as 31 points separated the top 3 teams in this race with Allatoona (85) claiming victory over Brookwood (110) and Milton (116). One can assume that an "omission" accusation publicly launched at Coach McClay's hard work on his preview included this race, but one can also see that he nailed the end result. Allatoona's 20:20 team average paced the way, and Coach Patrick Parsons was thrilled with his ladies' performance. When asked to comment, he said he was "very impressed with our girls' race. They showed up and performed like I knew they were capable of. We are starting to come together at the right time of the season. I love how Coach Wood helps us get ready for Region and State." Individually, it was Allie's Wardle's race as the sophomore claimed victory in 19:04 over Lovett's Sydney Lamberson et al. Wardle said she "wanted to win my race from start to finish no matter how hard it was or how much pain I was in. The conditions were almost perfect, and I had to work hard to keep my lead because the other runners pushed me. I try to remind myself 'tempo, tempo tempo' and to not let up. This race was more challenging because I had to set the pace from the front. I'm very happy with winning and getting a PR although I was hoping to go a bit faster. It's hard when you're racing against the clock. It was a true blessing to win, but my work is not done yet. I'm looking forward to a very competitive race at Region." 

Varsity Boys Race E

Ethan Kurilko of Lakeside Evans, Matthew Schoeder of Jefferson, and Sam Colton of Paideia

Whew! The two-day extravaganza comes to a close, and showing that they would not be outdone by their female counterparts, Allatoona reigned supreme in Race E. The 16:20 of Gabriel Bowman (2nd overall) paced the Bucs. Coach Parsons commented that "Coach Wood was the first meet where our young men started putting it all together. They ran a complete race and worked as a team. We hope to continue that going into Region and State." Ethan Kurilko of Lakeside Evans wins the individual honors in 16:17 and was the first of 10 sub-17:00 performances in the event.

Varsity Girls Race E

Simone Rojas from Evans HS was victorious in the Varsity Girls E race

The final varsity race of the day featured the Lady Tigers of Archer claiming a narrow 10 point victory over White County. Emily Cragin's sub-20:00 performance and 3rd place finish led her team to the 'dub'. Coach McCartney said his girls are "coming together at the right time of the season led by Emily Cragin, Paige Sandidge, and Ashley Annis. Their victory will act as a reinforcement as their championship season approaches." Evans' Simone Rojas dominated the competition in 18:32 showcasing that she will be downright dangerous at Carrollton in a few weeks.

Best of luck to everyone as the end of their season's approach. May everyone stay healthy, out of quarantine, and in shape!