5A State Preview
Can the Decatur girls win their first XC state title? The boys' team won their first title in 2019 and has not looked back since. The most recent re-classification was kind to the public schools in 5A as the private schools, which had been hogging most of the top spots for the last two years, all moved up to 6A. Decatur has had runners in and out of the lineup all season long, but nearly all of their key contributors were back for their region meet. Gabriella Malerba only ran two races before region, but she has looked like the individual championship contender that she was projected to be in the preseason. Anna Blaich might be even faster than she was last year when she ran a 20:19 at the state meet. If all goes according to plan, Sophie D'Elena, Kate Sherwood, and Margaret Welp are going to be difficult for another team to beat in positions 3 through 5.
McIntosh lacks a runner that will be in the top five, but they make up for it with their depth, which is right up there with Decatur's. The Chiefs packed five runners in the top eight of their region meet. They have also seen some absences throughout the year, but McIntosh could be peaking at the right time. Senior Katerina Soroka leads this team that will be looking to get back on the podium after a streak was snapped last year. Northview could also take the 5A title if its runners continue their late-season improvement. Northview narrowly won the most competitive region in 5A over Cambridge thanks to placing three runners in the top five. Speaking of Cambridge, the Bears rank second in 5A based on season PRs, and they finished 22nd at Coach Wood ahead of teams like Blessed Trinity and Lovett. Plus, top runner Anna Filipek will likely get them on the board with fewer than 10 points. Greenbrier is the final team with a great chance at the podium. Millie Quick and Allison Sidley are the front-runners for the Wolfpack, which has elected to run at smaller meets for most of this season. The battle for 6-10 will be very close between Midtown, Chattahoochee, Jones County, Centennial, and Woodland.
The 5A girls individual battle will be interesting, as a few front-runners have raced against each other several times with different outcomes in each meet. At the Wingfoot XC Classic, Natalie Tully of North Springs was tops among 5A runners with a 19:09. Decatur's Anna Blaich was just a few seconds behind, followed by teammate Gabriella Malerba and Lottie Chappell of North Springs. At Coach Wood, these four runners faced off once again. This time, the order was completely reversed: Chappell ran 18:33, and Malerba, Blaich, and Tully finished in that order. These four runners will have one more chance battle it out at the state meet, and all have finished a 5k in under 19:00 this season.
The only other 5A runner to break 19:00 this season is Kate Merritt from Coffee in South Georgia. She has not yet ventured up north to race yet this season, but odds are she will be in the hunt to win. In eight races this season, Merritt has won six times, finished below 20:00 six times, and mixed it up with some of the top Florida runners at the FSU Invitational. Only two Georgia runners have beaten Merritt this season: Margaret Wade of Savannah Arts (17:37 PR) and Wade's teammate Lyric Olson (2:09 800 PR, 5:06 1600 PR).
Behind Merritt and the four runners from the previous paragraph, we should see a fun battle for the back half of the top 10 between several talented girls. Millie Quick and Allison Sidley of Greenbrier will be racing to give their teams a low score, as will Cambridge's Anna Filipek and Lauren Tindle. Bella Brick of Flowery Branch is coming off of a Region 8 victory by over 90 seconds, and she has plenty of experience at Carrollton. Grace Danser of Maynard Jackson HS won Region 5 and could be a top 10 threat as well.
Decatur entered the season as heavy favorites for the 5A title, and they remain the favorites ahead of the state meet. However, the competition has proved to be more challenging than expected, and the Bulldogs will have to bring their A-game if they want to win their third 5A title in four seasons. Like their girls' team, the Decatur boys competed most of the season without a completely healthy lineup. Everyone was healthy at region, though, and it showed as Decatur took six of the top seven spots. William Carlton, Jake Westing, and Zakariye Abdulahi are one of the scariest trios in Georgia, and these three seniors have all proven in the past that they can perform well under pressure at Carrollton. Decatur was able to take down 7A power Brookwood early in the season at Jekyll Island and late in the season at Coach Wood. It will take a huge effort from one of the other teams to pull out the "W", but Decatur does have a weakness with the gap between their top three and the rest of their top seven.
Chapel Hill is one of three teams besides Decatur that has a decent shot at bringing home the first-place trophy. Brothers Finn and William Herlihy lead this team, which nearly took down Decatur at the Atlanta Classic (although Decatur was missing a few runners). The Panthers of Chapel Hill easily won Region 5 with 24 points. Chattahoochee is another team to watch at state. The Cougars might have the best top three in the state with Diego Santiago, Chris Connolly, and Jerry McGaw all ranking in the top 10 of 5A. If their #4 and 5 runners have a better than expected race, this team could vault to the top. Finally, McIntosh is battle-tested, having run at just about every major meet in Georgia this season. They placed behind Chattahoochee and Chapel Hill at Asics, but only by a tiny margin, and McIntosh's strength is at position 4, where most of these other teams are a bit weaker.
Other teams to keep an eye on during the race include Cambridge and Greater Atlanta Christian, which went head-to-head at Region 6. Cambridge emerged on top by a single point, but Chattahoochee was able to beat both teams. A contender that won its region is Clarke Central, which convincingly bested Jefferson at Region 8 in a bit of a surprise. Clarke Central has some front runners which raises their ceiling. Finally, Dalton could make some noise if they are full strength at state.
The solid favorite for the 5A boys' individual championship this year is Chattahoochee senior Diego Santiago. Santiago has been a fast runner since he was a freshman, but it appeared he had stalled out in the mid-16:00 range last season. However, Santiago has truly run impressively this fall. He must have found a training rhythm that helped him over the hump, and he's been lights out all season. He ran a 16:01 in his first race of the season, followed that up with a 16:36 on the state meet course in September, then two consecutive races under 15:30 with a PR of 15:05 at Asics. Evidently, his junior teammate Chris Connolly did not want Santiago to get lonely at the front of these races, so Connolly broke past the 16:00 barrier as well. He will be in competition for a top three spot for sure.
As mentioned above, the Decatur boys feature a remarkable trio of seniors that have been a part of all of Decatur's recent team success. William Carlton was the 5A 3200m champion in track season, and he will be trying to chase down Santiago for his first XC individual title. Teammates Jake Westing and Zakariye Abdulahi have both run under 17:10 at Carrollton in the past, and they could finish in the top five as well. Dillon Shin of Cambridge finished less than 10 seconds back of Connolly at region and owns a 16:09 season best. Chattahoochee's third runner, Jerry McGaw, is just a freshman and has already run 16:15 at Asics. Tyler Jones of Woodland did not have a chance to run on a pancake-flat course this season, but he has proven his racing chops with big wins at the Big Peach Mustang Stampede and Region 7-5A, where he beat Cartersville's Malachi Vosburgh, a top-10 contender in his own right. The Herlihy brothers of Chapel Hill and Carter Robison of Northgate round out the big names in this field.