Path to the Podium: 2021 Savannah Arts Academy Girls XC

Savannah Arts on the Podium. Photo by Steven Ricciardi.

Path to the Podium: Savannah Arts Girls, by Andy Christie

Looking at State Results is interesting enough, for us fans of high school cross country. However, finding out what it took for teams to reach that point makes those places and point totals that much more fascinating.

Making the podium (top 4) as a team and earning a State trophy is the goal for many teams when they start preparing for XC after Track ends.  Whether it is the thrill of a program making it for the first time, the pride of keeping a tradition alive, or the exhilaration of a return to the top after an absence, climbing the stairs to the podium is the dream of harriers hoping to end their season on a high note. 

We've asked coaches to reflect on what it took to get their team to the podium at the 2021 Georgia State Cross Country Meet. Next up is Coach Steven Ricciardi of Savannah Arts, to talk about his girl's 2nd place finish in the Class AAA State Meet. 

XC 2020

any results that gave motivation: 
The nature of 2020 was especially difficult.  I made a schedule, then it was cancelled by the county.  The season was up in the air.  We were fortunate to be able to compete, but were limited to only competing against Chatham Co. Schools.  This was difficult, as were all of the changes surrounding Covid, and the uncertainty of whether or not we'd even be able to compete at the State meet.  The girls were motivated by more than one perfect team score, including the Region Championship.  Motivation also came from our disappointing finish at State in 2020.  We had a first year runner, step off the course because she got sick, and thought she wasn't allowed to finish the race.  This DNF obviously hurt or team score tremendously.  No one passed blame, and the girls rallied around the situation to build on it for the 2021 season.

Winter 2020

Anyone that stepped up their training with XC already in mind. 
The strong group of sophomores (Margaret Wade, Lyric Olson, Ava Coffey, Camille Arango were all motivated by the potential we had and were already talking and focusing on the 2021 XC season....Ava Coffey, and Camille Arango both picked up running during Covid and were first year XC runners.)

mindset of the non-seniors -
The mindset was to learn from the past but to focus on the 2021 season.  I tried to stress to them the importance of their Junior year and not to wait/assume good things will happen their senior year with all of the added pressure of it being their last shot at a podium finish.

any setbacks/challenges that had to be overcome?
The main challenges weren't unique to our team, but our school was completely online until 2nd semester.  After that, we were in a hybrid model that amounted to the same difficulties in communication, and limited face to face interactions.

Track 2021

anyone that had a breakout season, or new additions, that changed the outlook of XC

Lyric had a break out season culminating with her 4th place finish in the 800.

anyone that was already expected to contribute, but still had a good season

Lyric Olson- 4th in 800 at state meet.  Lyric, Margaret Wade, Camille Arango, Valerie Kirk-4 x 800 team 3rd place State Meet.  Margaret Wade-9th in 1600 and 11th in 3200.

Summer 2021

any new additions that changed the outlook for XC
Two Freshmen in particular brought a level of depth to the top runners that was crucial.  Elle Harward-Grant, and Ava Thomas

early goals for the season

I always have the SAA runners do 1 short term personal goal, 1 long term personal goal and 1 season team goal.  From our team meeting back in May of 2019, our goal was to podium at the state meet.  I made it a personal goal of my own to shift focus from region to the state meet.   It drove all of my decisions as a coach and was a constant in the lives of the runners.  Every runner on the team knew about and trained with that goal in mind throughout the last 2 seasons.

how the team handled summer training,
Much of the summer training was athlete-centered.  I offered incentives to support the effort and most of the runners responded well.

any setbacks/challenges that had to be overcome?
A challenge for the teams in the Southeast is to perform well on the hilly Carrollton course.  With our focus shift to reaching the podium at the State meet, we had to get creative with hill training living at sea level right on the Coast.  Finding safe and effective places to hill train was a challenge.   We lost Senior Kate Poppell who was our #5 runner the previous two seasons.  She sustained a knee injury in soccer and opted not to run a month into the season.

Season 2021

anyone that had a breakout season that changed the outlook

as for break outs;  freshman Elle Harward-Grant who finished 12th at the State meet which was a school record for us at SAA.  She was undertrained coming in and has tremendous potential.  Ava Coffey would be another one.  She worked incredibly hard in the off season and PR'd 3 consecutive races this year.  She finished # 2 for us in one race and dropped her times significantly from last season.

how early results compared to any goals

The girls were incredibly focused and consistent.  I haven't coached a bunch that was as driven and measured as this group.  They stayed on target all season and never drifted.

any setbacks/challenges that had to be overcome
We were unable to host our Kickoff Classic, so had to find a last minute race and went to the Frazier-Hite.  Our Savannah Chrisitan meet was also cancelled due to health reasons of the race director, so we had to find a last minute race and attended the SCCPSS #2 race with very little competition.  With the exception of the single SCCPSS #2 race, we had to travel far all year.  We spent a lot of time on the bus this season.

in hindsight, key moments of the season that led to the State result
it was super important for this group to see the State meet course ahead of time.  Attending the Ortho-invite was a great opportunity and made a huge difference.  Not only do our athletes get psyched out by the hills coming from completely flat-land Savannah, but in our top 7, Camille and Ava had only seen the state course once, and Rosie Knudsen, Ava Thomas, and Elle Harward-Grant had never seen the course.  This, along with the outstanding leadership of Margaret Wade and a balanced approach to training and staying mentally sharp as well as physically ready led to an even higher finish than we anticipated.

The 3A girls race