Can Ben Bergey defend his title from last year?
Pickens Preview... Preview.
Over 30 teams and 1,400 runners are scheduled to make the trek to Roper Park in Jasper to either kick off their seasons or continue the early portion of their season. This meet has been growing steadily over the years, but it has downright exploded in popularity this year. To steal a line from Coach McClay, it gives old school Berry Invitational vibes (for those of you who have been around long enough) as many, many of the Class preview teams will be featured here. I assume many of these squads will see each other again either at Wingfoot, ASICS, and/or Coach Wood, so it'll be fun to see how the all-class drama unfolds in the early going.
So upon initial observation, 3 of the preseason top 4 7A squads will be featured in this meet in Marietta, Carrollton, and Lambert. Carrollton has already gotten started and had an impressive showing last week as they emerged as the "winner" when comparing the Hoya 2 mile results with the North GA 2 mile results. A 50 second split from 1-5 is solid over 2 miles, but how much will that expand when adding an extra 1.1 miles? Roper is considered by the meet director to be a fast course, so it's certainly possible for Carrollton to keep the gap pretty tight. In a super dense field, it'll be important for not just the Trojans but everyone to get their top 5 in before the "herd". If Carrollton can accomplish this, they may punch everyone else in the mouth and establish themselves as an all-class threat. Marietta makes their debut and will try to ensure Carrollton doesn't just waltz in and stake their claim. Marietta enters as the preseason 7A #1, and while November is far more important than August, there's something to be said about getting off to a strong start. These Blue Devils will attempt to do just that. Their 1-5 gap on paper appears to be greater than Carrollton's which could affect them in a huge field, especially if their 5th gets stuck in what could be the equivalent of downtown ATL at some of the narrower parts of Roper Park. Lambert, based on last season 5K Average, actually enters as the favorite with all of their top 5 expected to be in the top 26. While that may be a little stiff, Lambert has the potential to establish themselves as a true State power with a strong performance in their opening 5K. Teams like Harrison and West Forsyth are squads who could make some noise here and possibly show that they enter the season a little underrated. This isn't just a 7A showcase though; former 7A school Etowah needs to be factored into the conversation along with the likes of Sequoyah, Creekview, Lovett, Chestatee, and Centennial.
This is certainly a "Who's Who" style race to kick off the XC season proper. The top 4 runners, when utilizing the metric of average 5K from last year, are separated by only 9 seconds. These 4 are Ben Bergey (South Forsyth), Alex Arrambide (East Forsyth), Dru Moore (Etowah), and Jared Fortenberry (Marietta). All 4 of these runners are considered favorites in their respective classes for State titles, so how fun will it be to watch them slug it out in an "All-Classer" like Pickens? While possibly not quite being ready to contend for the W, a host of athletes enter with top 5-10 potential in guys like Andrew Balogh (Etowah), Hagan Russell (Carrollton), Sterling Sellier (Harrison), Diego Fernandes (West Forsyth), Reid Latimer (Lambert), Spencer Etheridge (Alpharetta), and the duo of Diego Santiago and Chris Connolly (Chattahoochee). Obviously, there will be several other runners to consider who made huge jumps over the summer, so this could be a pretty incomplete list. It's entirely possible that the entire top 25 in this race could be top 10 threats in their respective Class Championships come November.
The top 6 teams entering this meet seem to be grouped in pairs. The Top 2 preseason 7A squads in Marietta and Harrison will get their first look at each other to open up the season as they enter with a (on-paper) sizable gap on the rest of the field. Both teams feature heavily not just in the team picture but also individually, so be prepared to see 10+ of these girls pushing near the front. Traffic may be an even bigger concern on the girls' side, especially on a flat course where everyone may be trying to establish position early, so having a small 1-5 gap early on and maintaining that gap may be the key for the W here. It should be noted that, utilizing average 5K time from last year, Marietta's 5th comes in at 26th place. Harrison? 27th. Only 5 points separate these 2 squads on paper with Harrison having the narrow advantage. The next 2 coming in with something to prove are South Forsyth and Lambert. These squads actually match up fairly well to each other as they both have studs at the top (Advantage: SF) but also feature some depth (Advantage: Lambert). For these 2 teams to come close to Harrison or Marietta, that #5 runner will need to improve, but taking 3rd in this field will be a huge success in and of itself. Lovett comes in next, and their team will be trying to bully its way into the top 4 or so. Despite individual favorites, they will need to navigate the traffic to avoid sliding too far down the results list. Keep teams like Etowah, Carrollton, and Parkview on your radar, too, as all 3 of those teams enter projected to score under 300 points which would solidify them as top 9 teams. Once we get to that point, though, all bets are off. Summer work and early season dedication and determination will be on full display.
Samantha McGarity (Harrison) is establishing herself as among the better runners in the southeast, and she may have goals which exceed Carrollton in November. What better way to test the waters than racing on a flat course and stamping out a quick opener? There is plenty of talent elsewhere in this field, but I'm not too sure anyone can keep up with McGarity. Carmel and Isabel Yonas (SF), Mary Parrish Green (Lovett), and Kristal McQueen (Marietta) are certainly talented enough to try, but this might be a race for 2nd place which, again, is no joke in a field this deep. Others trying to open their season in the top 10 of a big race include Maddie Jones (Marietta), Haley Primm (Parkview), Ellary Hackworth (Harrison), Bella Cammarota (Lambert), and Nora Hart (Marietta). Each of those 5 girls have run 19:00 or faster in the last year, so can they press up into the top 5?
Lots of shifting can occur in a matter of 2.5 months, but one thing is for sure: Cross Country season is HERE, and, after a nice appetizer round last week, we get to hit the first main course of what's hopefully going to be a special feast in 2022.