The boys 6A race was a lot of fun to watch
All Photos by Marc Logan - Photo Album
Some fans come to watch the individual race at state. Some are more fixated on the team race. And more often than not some of those fans leave a little disappointed as one or both of them turn out to be a blowout. And we saw that happen quite a bit in the Friday races with the 4A boys race really turning out to be the only close one. But Saturday morning we saw things turn around at the 2021 GHSA State Championships. The 6A boys and girls gave us four very good races to watch for and as a fan it was such a blast to see it all unfold.
6A Boys - Solomon and Gates thrill while Richmond Hill take a well earned first ever win
The morning started out cold and dark as the sun didn't give us any light until about 10 minutes before the start of this race. But that didn't stop the 6A boys from putting on a show. Bryson Gates of Creekview and Nathan Solomon of Shiloh very quickly established themselves as the top duo in this field. The top top runners traded punches all race and there was no way to tell who looked better at any point. And they just looked like they were running so fast the entire race. Maybe they slowed a little bit away from the crowds, but it was obvious from the start that these two were here to throw down and produce a fast time. They didn't have a gap on the field quite yet when they came by halfway as Solomon led Gates with the field strung out behind them. But by the time they reached the hill after the two mile, these guys were gone and the only question was if anybody was going to break. The answer was no. These two came to win and this thing was going to come down to the wire. They came out of the woods and up separation slope looking the exact same as they'd looked all race. All that was left was the final up and downhill at Carrollton. Solomon got up the hill first and appeared to get just enough separation that he could maintain the lead going down the hill and into the finish, but Gates found his final gear and pulled up even with Solomon halfway down the hill as the crowd began to roar realizing what they could be about to see with Gates running a little bit faster. Solomon realized what was happening and dug deep to find one final gear as he sprinted towards the finish line. Two amazing runners but unfortunately only one of them could win. And on this day that was to be Solomon by 0.27 seconds over Gates with Solomon winning his first ever state title. The 2nd and 3rd fastest times of the weekend. What a race and while there is only one winner, there are definitely no losers after that amazing effort and show for the fans.
6A Boys chase pack at the halfway
Oh hey by the way, there were more than just two runners in this race. Coming into the race the field appeared to be wide open after Solomon and Gates. And that's exactly what we got to see as there was no way of telling who was going to finish in the top 5 or even top 10 just looking at where they stacked up at the halfway point. Early on Eli Corn of East Paulding and Lyle Donovan of Cambridge were up near the front. Then at halfway there was Ryan McKee of Kennesaw Mountain and Carter Spohn of Pope doing some work. There was also the lurking of Nasrudin Mohamed of Grovetown at all points. And of course the Richmond Hill sophomore duo of Noah Sybert and Memphis Rich were trying to score some big team points. Ethan Kurilko, the senior from Lakeside, Evans appeared content to just let things sort themselves out in front of him as he sat back and was ready to pounce when the pace got too difficult for some. By the hill after the 2 mile McKee and Corn were back in the lead of the chase pack with Mohamed and Spohn leading Sybert and Rich who appeared to be falling off and Donovan just barely holding on.
While the crowd was distracted by the close finish of the top two runners this pack crested the final hill as well and it was McKee who would not be denied as he came home in 3rd after pulling away from all other challengers running a time of 16:21. Once McKee was able to pull away and everybody else fell off, Sybert and Rich were able to pick up the pieces and pull into 4th and 5th place passing Mohamed and Corn up the final hill to finish with a time of 16:25 and 16:26 respectively picking key low points for their team. Corn came home in 6th with 16:28 and Mohamed held on for 7th in 16:30. Donovan and Spohn were 8th and 9th with 16:36 and 16:40 while Kurilko was able to hold off all other contenders to nab the final podium spot with a time of 16:42.
The tight individual race just served as the appetizer to the main event which was the team battle. There were several teams who gave us reason to believe they could win it all at various points in this thing. There were times when Alexander looked strong enough to pull it off with their superior pack. There were times where Creekview had it bunched up enough behind Gates that you would think they could make a run. With how fast they were running it was sometimes hard to keep track of which runners were Richmond Hill and which runners were Sequoyah as both teams were battling for a trophy on the day. The same could be said about Cambridge and Pope. In the end though there could only be one champion and 3 other trophy winners. And by the time the runners got to the final hill it was obvious there was only one team that was strong enough at all five places to earn the win. Richmond Hill got the job done with two in the top 10 and three in the top 20 while their 4-5th came in right at 17:30 to secure the win - the first ever for their boys program. Claiming 2nd place was a game Alexander squad that stayed out of the business of duking it out individually and focused on having a tight 1-4 pack and a good enough 5th man to get the job done. They were led by Leon Waine and Kaden Harris who took 14th and 15th running 16:47 and 16:48. North Atlanta was 3rd following a similar game plan as Alexander without any real front runners. they were led by Teddy Meredith and Sumner Kirsch who finished 22nd and 23rd with times of 17:07 and 17:10. And it was Sequoyah who ended up taking the last trophy with 216 points, only 4 over Creekview. they were led by Josh Helms and Aiden Ingram who got 24th and 26th with times of 17:12 and 17:15. so 3/4 of the podium didn't have anybody place higher than 14th in the race. That's some GREAT team running in such a chaotic race.
6A Girls - Rojas Delivers and North Atlanta holds on for the win
So clearly the drama started with the 6A boys, but it absolutely continued with the 6A girls race. This one was wide open as well and there's about nine different girls who I felt could have won this thing if they caught the right. So naturally I expected there to be a big pack of girls together at least through the halfway. I was wrong.
Early on Simone Rojas from Evans jumped out to the front being followed closely by Heidi Heppner from North Atlanta. Not far behind her was older sister Clara Heppner and then behind them we saw Habersham freshman Audrey Hotard leading Catherine Townsend, North Atlanta's 3rd runner in the top 5. She led Alexa Hoppenfeld and then there was a gap to the Pope Trio of Lorel Golden, Addison Adair, and Charlotte Dunn who were clearly using some group racing tactics to do what they could to help their team win. Brooklyn Crabtree from Alexander and Anna Filipek from Cambridge hung back with the next pack to start out a little more conservative.
When we saw them come off of separation slope towards the halfway hill things had changed a little bit. Clara Heppner was now in the lead with Rojas following and the two had broken away. Again, it was a surprise to see only two girls leading instead of a bigger pack. Townsend was trailing a couple of seconds back. And behind her was Heidi Heppner, Hoppenfeld, and Hotard. But the Pope Trio was moving up well and had now caught the chase pack along with Filipek and we appeared to have the top ten all figured out, just had to sort out the finishing places. But what's this? Booklyn Crabtree moved up and was lurking ready to pick somebody off? Interesting....
After the two mile Heppner looked fantastic. She had a small gap heading down the hill towards the woods for the last time and was powering ahead with teammate Townsend now in front of Rojas. This looked like the race was going to continue this way to the finish as these three were away and Heppner looked great. Behind them the Pope girls had clearly moved up well to where they wanted to be as a group. After running the whole race together, they were clearly executing the team strategy to perfection at this point putting themselves in the top 6 with Hoppenfeld trying to hold onto their pack. Filipek was hanging on but not out of it yet. The other Heppner was now trying to hold off Crabtree who had moved into the top ten after a fantastic middle of the race.
Coming out of the woods though I was a little taken aback. I expected to see Heppner first, but instead saw Rojas. And with a gap too! Once she got up separation slope and across the street, this thing was over. Heppner ran a great race, but this was the Simone Rojas show. After looking like she was done at 1200 to go she came roaring back in the woods to take home her first ever state title in a time of 18:55, the 3rd fastest of the meet. Heppner would hold on for a strong 2nd place showing with her 19:05 and teammate Townsend would take 3rd in 19:07 giving North Atlanta two very important low sticks. The Pope trio was next with Golden, Adair, and Dunn running 19:24, 19:26, and 19:29 followed by Filipek who found one last bit of strength to give her team a low stick at 19:37 in 7th. Hoppenfeld held on for a very strong 19:51 in 8th place and Crabtree also broke 20:00 in 9th, making the 6A race the race with the most sub 20's so far. Heidi Heppner was able to hold on for 10th as North Atlanta put 3 girls in the top ten.
The team race was even more exciting than the individual race with a lot of back and forth between two teams that didn't run anywhere near each other. I'm sure the coaches of each team were very frantic during that final mile as it looked close the whole way. What was interesting coming in was how the different racing styles would play out. Cambridge had a solid front runner in Filipek that could definitely put herself in the top ten (which she did) but after that they had to rely on a pack of girls together for as long as possible. North Atlanta on the other hand was hoping to gain a huge lead with their top 3 runners as any of them could win the race individually. So there was very little of Cambridge racing North Atlanta during the race. Pope also was in the mix for the win was a very similar team to North Atlanta. So you'd expect them to race each other early. But they didn't as North Atlanta had a much more aggressive race plan while Pope had a much more conservative plan. North Atlanta and Pope were exactly even through 3 runners so it came down to 4th and 5th runners to determine who was the better team there and North Atlanta was able to win that battle. And so the race that appeared close between those two teams turned to favor North Atlanta late in the race. So the attention of the fans turned to watching North Atlanta versus Cambridge, two teams that had completely different strategies. Watching the race it unfolded exactly as you would think. North Atlanta with 3 up, but two back, while Cambridge only had 1 up high and needed the pack to do all of the damage. They did quite a bit of damage putting their 2-5 runners within 17 seconds and putting their 5th 5 places in front of North Atlanta's 4th. But North Atlanta held strong enough at 4-5 to get the job done. North Atlanta was able to earn their first ever Girls State Cross Country title, winning by just two points over a very good Cambridge girls team. Taking home the last trophy of the race was Lakeside, DeKalb who scored 199 points barely edging out Riverwood for the podium spot. They were led by Haley Davis in 22nd place with a time of 22:47.