By Earl Vaughan Jr.
Cross country appeared to be one of the few high school sports that was perfectly suited to endure the COVID-19 pandemic.
With athletes competing outdoors and for the most part naturally socially distanced from each other while running, it almost seemed to come equipped with a COVID-safe label.
But as runners from the Patriot Athletic Conference learned, even their sport isn’t immune to a variety of COVID protocols, and both athletes and coaches shared a collective sigh of relief recently when they managed to complete the regular season without any major problems.
There were some familiar names at the top of the field after this year’s conference meet at South View High School.
The host Tigers, under first-year coach Cooper Wurst, surged to win both the boys’ and girls’ team titles, finishing ahead of second-place Terry Sanford in both races.
The individual champions were repeaters as E.E. Smith’s Octavious Smith took the boys’ title while Terry Sanford’s Rainger Pratt was the girls’ winner.
Wurst faced a double challenge as the new South View coach. In addition to the pandemic, he stepped into the huge shadow of departed Tiger coach Jesse Autry, who for close to a quarter of a century, had consistently put the South View program at the top of the conference.
Autry introduced Wurst to the South View family at the school’s 2018-19 athletic banquet. Wurst departed his high school alma mater, Terry Sanford, to join the Tiger staff. He said he quickly learned from the departing Autry the importance of building relationships.
Wurst said the key was making the runners perform their best, something Autry was especially gifted at doing.
“He tried to make it accessible to everybody,’’ Wurst said. “That’s something I worked on. If there was any kid, good or bad, that wanted to compete in this weird year we are having, if they wanted to be involved, we were going to find a way to make sure that happened.’’
But there were impediments to that goal in this season of COVID. Following modified rules provided from the N.C. High School Athletic Association, Patriot regular-season meets were limited to three schools, each with a maximum of nine runners per team.
Masks were required prior to the start of the race but could be dropped when the gun sounded.
To allow as many athletes as possible to be part of the team, Wurst held his practices from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., allowing parents time to get away from work and drive their children to practice.
“We went above and beyond to work around their schedules,’’ he said, “so they could have something else that matters to them.’’
En route to taking the team titles, Wurst resorted to a familiar tactic of his predecessor Autry: pack running. “They went out on both sides, boys and girls, and executed it perfectly,’’ Wurst said.
The Tiger boys had three runners in the top five, Kamden Payne taking second place, Patrick Davis third and Jay “Buggy” Benefield fifth.
Three Tiger girls finished in the top eight, led by Tania Wilson in fourth place, Madison Schofield in seventh and Vanessa Walcott in eighth.
The next stop for the Tigers will be Saturday’s 3-A Mid-East Regional meet at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.
Wurst said the Tigers will be shooting for top 10 team finishes in the races. “We are looking to build back to a program that can do well on the regional level,’’ he said.
E.E. Smith’s Smith and Terry Sanford’s Pratt were both hoping to better their individual times from last season, but both found that hard to accomplish because of challenges imposed by the pandemic.
Smith said he was only able to practice two or three days a week in the early stages of the season. “We gradually increased the time of practice,’’ Smith said. “I felt like I pretty much stayed the same,’’ he said, referring to his meet times.
Pratt felt she wasn’t pushed as hard with a smaller field of runners. “We didn’t have as much competition,’’ she said. “It’s not very fun social distancing while running. You can’t run with other people.’’
But Pratt has no complaints about how things were handled. “I’m glad we had a season,’’ she said. “Track season was canceled last year. If we hadn’t had cross country, it would have been almost a year with no season.’’
Both Pratt and Smith are looking forward to the regional Saturday. They like the WakeMed course, which features a big downhill at the start of the race and a long climb uphill at the end.
Pratt recorded her personal best there as a freshman, running a time of 19:21.
She plans to not push herself too hard this week to make sure she has fresh legs for Saturday and also to eat right.
“Physically I know I can get a good time,’’ she said. “It’s definitely mentally challenging.’’