Cross Country returns but with substantial changes

By Earl Vaughan Jr.

Even an outdoor sport like cross country isn’t immune to restrictions being imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting Monday, runners from Cumberland County and across the state will be able to have their first taste of action as the N.C. High School Athletic Association kicks off the cross country season.

But a sport famous for its huge crowds at the starting line and teams that focus on running as a pack will look a lot different this season.

For one thing, there will be fewer runners when the signal to begin the race is given.

NCHSAA schools are allowed a total of 14 regular-season meets with a maximum of two per week. The maximum number of teams in a single meet is four, limiting each school to seven male and seven female runners.

In a three-team meet, the number of runners climbs to nine. A two-team meet permits 14 each.

Matthew Hanes, who coached Cape Fear to the Patriot Athletic Conference title last season and ended South View’s 21-year string of league titles, said the rules will change the way he approaches his job.

“I’ll probably give some of my younger runners more of an opportunity,’’ he said. “The first hurdle we all had to cross was advertising the sport.’’

Because COVID has sharply limited contact with the general student population, Hanes had a hard time getting the word out about the delayed start of cross country and enticing Cape Fear students to come out for the team.

He felt those were the reasons behind the lower numbers. Another was the fear of some parents who felt that if their children couldn’t be in class every day that they didn’t need to be competing in athletics.

Another issue is how the meets will be run. The typical mass start is basically forbidden. Coaches have been given multiple options on how to begin a meet, from staggering the start of individual runners based on ability to spacing the runners out in smaller groups.

The finish line is suggested to feature either a chute or corral method of collecting finishers.

Last year’s Patriot Athletic Conference boys’ champion, E.E. Smith junior Octavious Smith, returns after running a 16:09.10.

Smith’s coaches, Lytonia Whitaker and Roz Major-Williams, call him a natural runner who has yet to realize his full potential.

“He’s listening to every nugget, every tidbit we’re giving him,’’ Whitaker said. “He’s learning every single day.’’

Major-Williams said Octavious has a goal this year of breaking the 16-minute mark. “He’s a diamond in the rough,’’ she said. “He just runs because he likes to run.’’

Octavious said his focus in the off-season has been building the strength in his core. “You can’t run fast without a strong core,’’ he said. He’s been doing an assortment of workouts and sees a marked improvement.

“It helps me keep my posture up and not slouch over too far,’’ he said.

Last year’s Patriot Conference female winner, Rainger Pratt of Terry Sanford, is also back.

Pratt recorded a winning time of 20:21.9 last season.

The Terry Sanford team captain this season, Pratt joined former South View cross country coach Jesse Autry’s Carolina Liberty AAU cross country team to stay on top of her game over the summer.

“I was still training and running some meets,’’ she said.

Pratt has been trying to recapture the strong times she ran as a freshman and hopes to get into the low 19s this season.

“I want to keep up my hard work and be consistent with my training,’’ she said.

As far as the team competition, Hanes’ Cape Fear boys should be strong again as they return 10th-place finisher Collin Gaddy. But Hanes expects South View to be tough again, led by ninth place finisher Jay Benefield. On the girls’ side, Hanes returns Iris Terwilliger, who was the second-place finisher in the Patriot meet last season at 20:46.20.

First-year Terry Sanford girls’ coach Ken Rashad has a strong lineup back that includes Pratt and two other runners, Brinlee Risenmay and Marissa Morris, who placed in the top 20 in the conference meet.

“They’ve already united as a team from the experience of being together last year,’’ Rashad said.