Recent Georgia XC History: Top Ten Boys Individual Runners

Justin Wachtel was a superstar all four years of high school

Editor's note: All lists in this series are the opinion of the author of this article, they are not meant to be a definitive final ranking, but more a way to take a look back at the best of the best in recent history.

Hello everyone! I hope you all are having a great summer. As we look forward to the upcoming cross country season, I thought it would be a fun exercise to rank the top 10 cross country athletes in Georgia from the past 10 years. Many runners have no idea who their forerunners have been, or who holds various records on the courses that many athletes still race today. I want to highlight some of Georgia's best runners in recent memory to give them the recognition they deserve. This list is obviously not definitive and is subjective, although I did have some consistent rules that I used to rank the athletes. If you disagree, that's totally fine! 

I decided to limit my rankings to athletes who graduated in the past 10 years. This includes runners from the class of 2014 up to the class of 2023. I had the best body of knowledge for this time period, and it covers runners who ran in entirely MileSplit-covered meets. Also, Carrollton switched to its current course layout in 2013, so it was easier to compare state performances to each other starting that year.

I focused mainly on cross country performances and not track and field performances, though I did factor in track PRs and accolades a little. I also wanted to reward athletes who had multiple great seasons over one standout season. So, without further ado, here are my rankings!

Honorable Mention: 

Chase Kennedy, East Jackson (2017); John Higinbotham, Homeschool (2020); Graham Blanks, Athens Academy (2020); Frank Pittman, Marist (2016); Alex Arrambide, East Forsyth (2023)

10. Ethan Ashley, Denmark (2022)

Ashley started slower than some of the other runners on this list, but he finished stronger than just about all of them. Ashley was a state meet contender starting his sophomore season, when he finished 4th at 4A state. His performance helped bring Denmark HS to state contention as a team a season after failing to qualify at all. The following season, Ashley's junior year, saw Denmark re-classified all the way from 4A to 7A. Ashley improved along with his competition and ended up with a 15:27 SB at the inaugural RunningLane Championships. That spring, Ashley ran a 9:03 in the 3200, which was a harbinger of his nearly unmatched senior season. As a senior in 2021, Ashley had one of the best individual XC seasons in GA history, going completely undefeated in the regular season against top competition in every race. He won Carrollton Orthopedic, Warpath, Alexander/Asics, and Coach Wood. He then proceeded to dominate the 7A state meet in 15:45.78, the third-fastest time on the current Carrollton layout ever. A relatively long layoff until Eastbay South did not faze him, as Ashley won that race, too, with at PR of 15:00.31. That made him the only GA athlete in at least 15 years to win Eastbay/Champs/Foot Locker South. At Eastbay Nationals, Ashley ran well for a 23rd-place finish in 15:52. After a senior track campaign in which he swept the 1600 and 3200 at the 7A state meet, Ashley jetted off to Air Force Academy.

9. Reilly Friedman, Galloway (2015)

Galloway's Reilly Friedman is on the very short list of three-time XC state champion runners. Friedman had an incredible stretch of not finishing worse than sixth against GA competition for three straight XC seasons--and that wasn't due to a lack of quality competition. As a sophomore, Friedman won the 1A Private state meet by 34 seconds on the old Carrollton layout, followed by a 15:48 at the Foot Locker South course. As a junior, Friedman had another incredibly productive season, winning several big meets (Clara Bowl, Last Chance) and culminating in a major victory at state. Friedman did not let the pressure get to him as a senior in 2014, producing his best season yet as he was almost completely unstoppable. He won every race he ran against GA competition, including a dominant victory in a 14:48.20 PR at Alexander/Asics and another win a week later at Coach Wood. Friedman's 15:52.43 at 1A Private state that season, on the current Carrollton course layout, was the course record at the time. In the postseason, he remained on a tear, finishing in 6th at the NXN Southeast Regional and qualifying for Nike Cross Nationals, where he finished 28th against the nation's top runners. 

8. Sam Bowers, Milton (2018)

Milton's Sam Bowers was a force in GA running for several seasons and ignited one of the top teams in recent GA history. As a sophomore, Bowers improved greatly from his freshman season and finished 8th in a loaded and very muddy 6A state meet (GA's highest classification until 2016). Then, as a junior, Bowers really took off, finishing first or second in every race he ran in the regular season, including victories at Atlanta Classic, Bob Blastow, and Double Dip, capping off the season with a 16:07 to win the first 7A state meet, as well as leading Milton to a third-place finish. After a 3200 state title in the spring, Bowers returned to produce his best season yet for a dominant Milton team that was easily the best team in Georgia that year. Outside of an obvious tempo race, Bowers was undefeated against GHSA runners in 2017, as he and teammate Nicholas Yanek were the top two GHSA athletes in every competitive race they ran together. Bowers's PR came at Wingfoot, where he finished in 14:50.25, just hundredths of a second behind GISA's Jacob McLeod in an epic finale, and the two runners both still hold the top two Wingfoot times ever. Bowers then won his second straight 7A title in 15:58, and he and Yanek both qualified for NXN with 15:09s at NXN Southeast. Milton didn't qualify as a team, but Bowers finished 35th at NXN with a great time of 15:48. 

7. Joe Sapone, Holy Innocents' (2023)

Joe Sapone of HIES is the most recent GA runner on this list, and one of the more difficult to rank given his relatively sparse racing schedule throughout high school. The "Flyin' Hawaiian" showed great promise as a freshman with a 16:25 SB and a sixth-place finish at the 1A Private state meet. In 2020, as a sophomore, Sapone only raced four 5Ks total, finishing first twice and second twice, including a runner-up at state in 16:25. As a junior, Sapone put it all together, winning three of his four regular-season 5Ks. That included a major victory at Wingfoot that showcased Sapone's patented finishing kick. At 1A Private state, Sapone ran 16:22 for the win, then followed that up with a very quick 14:58 at RunningLane. After a dominant track season (state victories in the 800/1600), Sapone continued his upward trajectory in 4A as he posted an undefeated regular season in 2022. This included a second-straight victory at Wingfoot, a sub-15:00 victory at the strong Jesse Owens Classic, and a PR of 14:56.52 at Coach Wood. At the 4A state meet, Sapone ran even faster than his state meet victory from 2021 but was upset by East Forsyth's Alex Arrambide. Sapone capped off his senior XC season by finishing 26th at Champs South, remaining the fastest GA finisher. That spring, Sapone proved his speed was for real with PRs of 1:51 in the 800, 9:03 in the 3200, and 4:04.27 in the 1600 (fourth all-time in GA).

6. Kyle Harkabus, East Coweta (2020)

Kyle Harkabus entered high school as one of the fastest freshmen in recent GA history, finishing in the top 10 of every regular-season XC race and running the fastest ever 1600 by a freshman in 4:15.61 (per MileSplit data). Harkabus followed that up with a sophomore XC campaign that saw him win seven regular-season races, including a PR of 14:53.90 at Alexander/Asics, still a record sophomore 5K time. He finished third at 7A state in 16:20 behind only the previously mentioned Bowers and Yanek. His best race to that point came at Foot Locker South, where Harkabus finished 7th in 15:06 to qualify for Foot Locker Nationals as one of only two sophomores to qualify that season. Harkabus entered his junior season in 2018 as the clear-cut top runner in GA. He won six of seven pre-state races, including Bob Blastow, AT&T Starr's Mill, and Wingfoot. Harkabus dominated the 7A state meet that season with a victory in 16:08, but he just missed out on another Foot Locker Nationals berth with a 12th-place finish at Foot Locker South. That spring, Harkabus won his second 7A 1600 title as well. For some reason, Harkabus's senior XC season wasn't quite as good as his previous one, but he still won several meets, had a 15:35 SB, and finished 4th (in 16:15) at 7A state and 26th at Foot Locker South. He has continued his excellent running at Liberty University as one of the top runners in his conference. 

5. Kamari Miller, Marietta (2021)

Kamari Miller was the fastest runner in recent memory from Marietta HS, which produces one of the best teams in GA nearly every season. Miller was more of a track star than a cross country star for his first two seasons. As a freshman, Miller ran 9:28 in the 3200 at 7A state, and as a sophomore, Miller achieved the 3200m sophomore record with a 9:08.95 at GA Meet of Champions. In XC, Miller started to break out in his junior season, winning the Clara Bowl Invitational and finishing 3rd in a very competitive 7A meet with a 16:09 mark. His junior track campaign was eliminated by Covid, but Miller emerged out of the pandemic as a new, absolutely unstoppable cross country runner. He didn't just win races; he obliterated the competition by the first two miles. Here's rundown of his season: won Bob Blastow by 44 seconds, won Cobb Co Championships by 46 seconds, won Carrollton Orthopedic by 35 seconds, won Big Peach by 54 seconds, won Coach Wood by 15 seconds. He broke the Carrollton course record (which still stands) with an amazing 15:29.72 at 7A state and led his team to victory. With the cancellation of the usual national meets in 2020, Miller competed in the first RunningLane Championships and finished fifth overall in 14:37.19 against national competition. Miller closed his HS career in track season with a 3200 PR of 8:54 and full mile in 4:09, both times ranking in the top 10 all-time in GA. 

4. Austin Sprague, St. Pius X (2014)

Sprague only knew success as a HS runner, graduating with two 3A individual cross country titles, four 3A team XC titles, four 3A individual track titles, and two 3A team track titles. He started strong by running a then-freshman record of 15:32.42 at Westover and finishing in 9th at 3A state in 2010 (when GHSA's highest classification was 5A). He also helped St. Pius win their first state title in 14 years, which seems hard to believe these days. During his sophomore season, Sprague proved that he was one of GA's top runners by finishing in the top 7 of every GA race he ran, including all of this state's major meets. A third-place finish at 3A state, in addition to a SB of 15:29 at Foot Locker South, set Sprague up for a very impressive junior year. Sprague lost to only a single GA runner (Josh Brickell of Peachtree Ridge) as a junior, taking victories at Clara Bowl, Carrollton Orthopedic, and Coach Wood and lowering his PR to 15:20. Sprague comfortably won the 3A state meet in 16:26 and finished 28th at Foot Locker South. Sprague kept improving into his senior XC season in 2013, lowering his PR even further to 15:01. He once again lost to a single GA runner all season (this time to Peachtree Ridge's Kevin Mills), but he avenged those losses with a win over Mills at Coach Wood. Sprague won a second 3A title on the current, more challenging Carrollton layout in 16:08 by over 30 seconds. For the first time, Sprague qualified for a national meet by finishing fourth at NXN Southeast. At Nike Cross Nationals, Sprague finished 32nd in 15:35.

3. Sully Shelton, Harrison (2021)

Sully Shelton may have been overshadowed by Kamari Miller during his senior XC campaign, but he ranks ahead of Miller due to superior consistency over four years and better track PRs. The extremely fast class of 2021 placed three athletes in the top five on this list, but that didn't stop Shelton from accumulating victories and accolades. Shelton really took off during his sophomore season with a second-place finish at Carrollton Orthopedic, first at Warpath, and fourth at 6A state in 16:33, with a third-place finish at Meet of Champions thrown in. Shelton won his first state titles in the spring, becoming the 6A champion in the 1600 and 3200, still as a sophomore. In 2019, his junior XC season, Shelton almost went completely undefeated, losing only to two GA runners all season long. He set a (since-broken) course record at Coach Wood's McIntosh Nature Preserve course in 14:58.91, and he went on to handily win the 6A state title in 16:11. Shelton finished third at NXN Southeast, qualifying for NXN where he was an impressive 47th. Shelton's senior season in 2020 saw him win at the Atlanta Classic and Darlington while only losing to four GA runners all season long, and two of them are on this list (Kamari Miller and Justin Wachtel). He finished second to Miller at 7A state in 16:07, a time fast enough to win in most seasons. Then, at RunningLane, Shelton once more had the opportunity to race against national competition and finished 18th in 14:48.83, a PR in his final XC race. Shelton was far from finished, though. He bested Miller several times in track season, including at the state meet in the 1600 and 3200. Most impressively, he set the state record that still stands in the 3200, running 8:50.85 at state. 

2. Jacob McLeod, Trinity Christian Dublin (2018)

GHSA is a high-school athletic association that includes all of the public high schools and most of the private schools in Georgia. However, it's not the only such organization, as we also have GAPPS and GIAA. GIAA's precursor, GISA, saw several standout XC and track athletes over the years, but none quite as talented as Trinity Christian's Jacob McLeod. The younger brother of multiple-GISA champion Kaleb McLeod, Jacob actually began his GISA career in eighth grade. By the time Jacob's 9th grade season was over, he already had collected five top-5 GISA state finishes in track and two top-5 finishes in XC. During his sophomore XC season in 2015, McLeod dominated against his GISA competition, winning his first state title with a time of 15:52. After winning his first three GISA track titles that spring, McLeod entered his junior season with a strategy to race against more top competition. He did race, and win, against his GHSA counterparts at the Battle of Atlanta, Coach Wood, and even the first Meet of Champions. McLeod also won a second GISA 3A title, but his season only kept improving from there. He finished eighth at Foot Locker South, qualifying for Foot Locker Nationals, where he finished 15th in 15:26, the best finish by a GA boy at a national meet (discounting RunningLane in 2020) in at least the past 10 years. McLeod's senior campaign was something to behold. He set course records everywhere: at the Carrollton course (in the Carrollton Orthopedic meet), at Wingfoot (with a PR of 14:50.22, outkicking Bowers), and at Coach Wood (winning by 20 seconds). McLeod won his third GISA state title, and then set his final course record at the Starr's Mill course in the Meet of Champions. At Foot Locker South, McLeod was dealing with an injury that required his jaw to be wired shut, but he still was able to finish 20th, a very good placement. In the spring, McLeod outdid himself by running a 3200 at the FSU Relays in 8:52.70, which was (at the time) a state record, and he pulled off the "triple distance triple" by winning the 800, 1600, and 3200 at the GISA state meet for the third year in a row.

1. Justin Wachtel, Mary Persons (2021)

A crazy Justin Wachtel statistic can describe just how talented he was. Beginning in his freshman season and continuing through his senior season, Wachtel raced 41 XC races in Georgia; he won 30 of them, and he only finished worse than fourth three times. Wachtel did not come from an XC powerhouse; Mary Persons HS is located close to Macon and often raced a different slate of meets than the metro Atlanta schools. However, Wachtel showed very quickly that he could race against the best GA had to offer. As a freshman, he won five races, collected a 15:48 PR at Wingfoot, and finished 3rd in the 4A state meet. He improved during his sophomore season, winning his first race against metro Atlanta competition at the Battle of Atlanta. Wachtel finished a narrow second at the 4A state meet in 16:18, almost 20 seconds ahead of third place, and he finished in the top 10 at Meet of Champions. He returned for his junior XC season in 2019 to dominate everyone. Wachtel won several races by over a minute, and he also won large races like the Battle of Atlanta, Wingfoot, and Alexander/Asics with a course record and PR of 14:26.91, the fastest 5K time ever recorded by a GA runner on MileSplit. He also took home the 4A XC title in 16:05.50, then a 4A record. After state, he finished 4th at Foot Locker South and 37th at Foot Locker Nationals. Wachtel returned in his senior season in full form. He won his first five races by over a minute before finishing 4th at the new Alexander/Asics course and 2nd to Kamari Miller at Coach Wood. Wachtel, now in 3A, won the state championship over a strong field in 15:51.52, which is still the fifth-fastest time ever on the current Carrollton layout. Wachtel headed to RunningLane in Huntsville, Alabama for his only post-state race. At the meet, he ran 14:36 to finish fourth against high-quality national competition, an incredible achievement. He even edged out Miller in the final meters. Wachtel closed out his track season with 3A state victories in the 3200 and 800, and he also earned himself a spot on the all-time GA top 10 in the 1600. That was a fitting end to a HS career that was, in my opinion, the best in GA from beginning to end from the past 10 years.